If Stevie Wonder sang in Portuguese, Songs in the Key of Life would truly, without question, be the best album ever recorded. Musically it is miles beyond virtually anything I can think of. Its ambition is unparalleled, its diversity is mind-blowing, its inspiration is total, its risks are alarming, and its payoffs are enormous. Compared to most albums, it is like one of those genius kids who graduates college at twelve, leaving all the other albums to sit behind soiling their Pampers. Its greatness is well established and well deserved. Now to drop the other shoe: like that child genius, Songs in the Key of Life is awkward, unmannered, and unsophisticated in expression. It tries to ask the star quarterback's girlfriend to the hayride, only to have her laugh and say, "Um, I'm already going with Greg."
I have no idea how much weed Stevie was smoking during the creation of the album, or whether he signed a lucrative contract with Satan in exchange for even more talent than he already had, but however it came about, the album is the apex of a fairly incredible creative streak. You can't argue with a run like Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness, and then Key of Life. He just kept raising the ante, like one of those jugglers where you can keep throwing shit at him and he'll be able to incorporate it into the act. Soon there are 180 items in the air tracing intricate trajectories over his head, the chainsaw twirling in an arc while the Ming vase ascends and the brassiere descends. He (Stevie I mean, not the juggler) put 2 years into Key of Life, which probably seemed like a long time then. Nowadays people take two years to make useless and impermanent horse dumpings like REM's Up.
My main issue with the album is the lyrics. Stevie is certainly one of the two or three genuine musical geniuses we have been given in the past 50 years, but he's about as good writing lyrics as he is down at the batting cages. Didactic intentions are expressed in stilted phrases that are crammed into these beautiful melodic lines like gigantic clumsy retards into an English comedy of manners. Rarely has the word "the" found itself accented in so many pivotal melodic situations, completely independent of the natural stress of the linguistic phrase in which it sits. Is that a valid reason to take an album like this to task? Yeah, I'd say so. I'm not being editorially petty with Stevie at all; I just think that a good 70% of these lyrics are completely amateurish and stick out where they oughtn't. He writes these gorgeous musical lines and then trammels them either with would-be educational ideas and/or just badly written sentences. In places, the lyrics come off rather like something from a mid 70s Horace Silver or Beach Boys album, wherein a gifted songwriter is trying way too hard to express, like, an exercise or dietary regimen in song.
Fortunately for the album, Stevie can pull off most of these lines even when they are total crap. Because he's such a gifted instinctive singer with phrasing, he actually manages to get around lines like "When my only worry/was for Christmas what would be my toy" without sounding like Rodd Keith trying to make sense of an insane song-poem.
"Music knows it is and always will/Be one of THE things that life just won't quit." That has to be one of the worst written lines ever to grace a #1 hit ("Sir Duke"), right up there with Uncle Paul's oft-quoted "And if this never-ending world in which we live in makes you give in or cry/Say live and let die." These guys would be just terrible at Scrabble. Well, at least there is one area in which I can finally beat both Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney. They are going DOWN, baby.
This is saying nothing of the actual content of the lyrics, which can be sublime, but can also be ridiculous. "Village Ghetto Land" tries to be socially relevant in the same way "Living For the City" was, but its oversimplified approach sinks it: typical made-for-TV ghetto scenario: "robbers," "beggars," people eating from garbage cans, etc. If Stevie weren't black, the song would be incredibly insulting, actually. Needless to say, one's perspective on ghetto life is necessarily out of touch once one has sold 900 million albums or whatever Stevie had sold at that point.
On the other hand, the thoroughly pretentious didacticism of "Black Man" works. The sincerity of "Have a Talk With God" is genuinely uplifting. The attitude and swagger of "Ordinary Pain" knocks you on your fat ass. "As" is eternal. "Ebony Eyes" is, though an afterthought, a pure bit of pop genius that sounds like if Paul Williams had real soul. "Joy Inside My Tears" is real right on. "I Wish" makes you jump around and dance. "Contusion" is awesome in its preposterousness, made great since it audaciously sits at track 4, immediately before "Sir Duke." No track is bad. Sonically, the album is a judo-chop right to the neck, ass, ears, booty, and throat. And very frequently, out comes the always delightful voice of Syreeta, the world's greatest background singer and one of my fave singers anyway. Also, the number of songs that exceed 6 minutes is very high - always a good thing with an artist like Stevie, even as it is usually a bad thing with an artist like Ringo Starr. And then there's "Saturn," where "people live to be 205." Pass the bong.
Did I need to talk this much about Songs in the Key of Life? Of course not. You already know it rules. But in case you didn't: beware the potholes, but hop in the limo and ride.
Review by Charlemagne Sizzleton