Reporting Brian Ives
In Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Here, we focus on Stevie Wonder‘s 1973 classic album Innervisions.
If, for some reason, you could only have one Stevie Wonder album (and we certainly don’t recommend limiting yourself to just one), Innervisions might be the record that you’d want.
Pretty much everything you love about the man is here: romantic songs and social commentary; soaring ballads and badass funk. It features Stevie as a one-man band and also shows him collaborating with others (including backing singer Lani Groves, bassist Willie Weeks, and guitarist Dean Parks). He croons sweetly, and he belts it out with righteous fury. He gets experimental with the then-new ARP synthesizer, but also he also plays beautiful piano. And let’s not forget his relentlessly funky drumming.
What Wonder attempted here could have resulted in an unfocused, all-over-the-place album, and in most musician’s hands it may have. But this is Stevie Wonder (and Stevie Wonder in the early ’70s at that).With all that in contains, Innervisions does manage to have a cohesive feel.
The album’s mission statement was included in it’s most celebrated single, “Higher Ground” (one of three songs on the album that features Stevie playing all the instruments and performing all the vocals). In that song, he sings ominously of soldiers who “keep on warrin’,” and powers who “keep on lyin’, while your people keep on dyin’.” Stevie has always been a positive force, though, so the lyrics are just an assessment, not a complaint. Despite that, he sings, “Lovers keep on lovin’/Believers keep on believin’/Sleepers just stop sleepin’… Gonna keep on tryin’ till I reach my highest ground.” While he’s singing about himself, it’s him encouraging everyone else to do the same.
The album, however, does start out on a somewhat dark note. On “Too High” (a jazz-funk number, which also features Stevie on all instruments) Stevie sings about a girl who “takes another puff and says ‘It’s a crazy scene’”; her “world’s a superficial paradise.” And then: “Did you hear the news about the girl today? She passed away, what did her friend say? They said ‘She’s too high, too high.’”
On “Visions” he croons sadly, accompanied by electric and acoustic guitar and upright bass, wondering if society can ever attain a place “where hate’s a dream and love forever stands.” Or, he wonders, it is just “a vision in my mind?” The weeping guitars lead one to believe that Stevie isn’t 100% optimistic about that.
He then turns to funk on “Living For The City” (another one-man production), where he describes a family from “hard time Mississippi,” with the father who works 14 hours days (“and barely makes a dollar”), his mother who cleans houses (“and hardly gets a penny”) and his sister who goes to school (to do so, “she’s got to wake up early”). The brother is ”smart, he’s got more sense than many,” and he grew up in a supportive home, but he isn’t able to find a job, and that leads to more trouble. “His patience’s long, but soon he won’t have any.”
And then, four minutes in, there’s an audio play within the song. The brother gets on the bus to New York City. “Wow! Just like I pictured it… skyscrapers and everythang!” Within a minute, over squiggling synth lines, you hear a series of events that leads to his being thrown in jail. Soon a judge announces that “a jury of your peers having found you guilty,” he’s facing a ten-year sentence. After he gets out: “His hair is long, his feet are hard and gritty/He spends his life walkin’ the streets of New York City.”
It’s difficult to be political and timeless, but Stevie does it with flying colors on this song. If you don’t think it is still relevant (particularly in the wake of recent court cases), go check out the film Fruitvale Station.
The romantic “Golden Lady” closes side one, and the upbeat “Higher Ground” starts side two.
Next is “Jesus Children Of America,” another solo funk masterpiece. As the title suggests, it’s something of a modern-day gospel song. While he sings that Jesus “loves you,” he asks, “Are you hearing what he’s saying? Are you feeling what you’re praying?” And while churches would likely sanction that part of the song, they may not be as comfortable with his endorsement of transcendental mediation: it gives you “peace of mind,” he sings. Not to mention the fact that he calls religious institutions to task, asking the “holy roller”: “Are you standing for everything you talk about, yeah?”
“All In Love Is Fair” is next: a beautiful and sad piano ballad that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Broadway musical. Accompanied only by a bass player, Stevie laments, “All in war is so cold, you either win or lose/When all is put away, the losing side I’ll play/But all is fair in love.” He finally concludes: “I should’ve never left your side.”
Things don’t stay sad, though. All of the sudden a Latin beat comes in, as Stevie tries to impress a lady with his worldliness: “‘Cause, like, I been to, y’know, Paris, Beirut, y’know,” he stumbles during the song’s intro. ”I mean, uh, Iraq, Iran, Eurasia… y’know I speak very, very, fluent Spanish!” The song warns against people getting too wrapped up in a glamourous scene, something he must have ‘seen’ often in the ’60s and ’70s. People “always reachin’ out in vain, just takin’ the things not worth having.”
Finally we get to “He’s A Misstra Know It All,” on which he sings about the “man with the plan, he’s got a counterfeit dollar in his hand.” Who is that one about? It could be about the stereotypical music industry crook; or an unscrupulous businessman; it’s also been suggested that it’s about then-president Nixon. It’s another warning, just not a specific one: watch out for yourself, it seems to say. And again, it’s timeless enough to be as relevant today as it was in 1973.
Innervisions won Album Of The Year at the GRAMMYs, and it has held up incredibly well in the decades since (even if some of the synthesizers scream “early 1970s!” and have aged about as well as 8-track tapes). VH1 named it #31 on their 100 Greatest Albums list, and Rolling Stone put it at #24 in their 500 Greatest Albums issue (their original 1973 review noted “Wonder’s appeal now crosses every boundary”).
Judith Hill, a former contestant on The Voice, and who is seen singing backing vocals for Stevie in the new documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, tells Radio.com that “I’ve sung most of the songs on Innervisions on tour with him. It’s hard to find any Stevie Wonder songs that aren’t good, but that album in particular is one of my favorites. ‘Higher Ground’ is really fun to sing on stage.”
Singer/sacred steel guitarist Robert Randolph has recorded a version of “Higher Ground” (with gospel group the Clark Sisters). Like Wonder, Randolph brings a positive gospel-like message into secular music (as opposed to trying to “convert” pop music fans to gospel music). As he enthuses, “Innervisions is such a great album, it still continues to inspire.”
If there is any problem with the album at all, Randolph says, it’s that it may have led other artists to believe that they could record albums on their own. “You hear other artists just saying, ‘I’ll just play everything myself!’ Stevie Wonder invented that idea, he perfected that idea. But other musicians felt like they could do it themselves.”
But of course, just because Stevie Wonder can do something, doesn’t mean you can. And ultimately, the message of Innervisions was that the way to improve the world is by working together.