Records Revisited: Stevie Wonder – Innervisions (1973)

Voilà, a wonder of the world on vinyl: Stevie Wonder’s »Innervisions« is one of the best albums of all time. Social criticism and perfectly crafted songs form a lasting panorama on the album. So if you haven’t heard the album and still need a New Year’s resolution, here you go!

A common complaint from pop lovers is that truly iconic records are not being made any more. It’s a clear case of cultural pessimism. But it’s true to say that records like »Innervisions« don’t grow on trees. They are rare miracles, and reminding ourselves of them at regular intervals does no harm to them or ourselves.  

At the time Stevie Wonder released his 16th album, »Innervisions«, to the grateful public for a small consideration in 1973, he was at the height of his success. In the 1970s, he had increasingly begun to bring new artistic impulses to black music. Just the year before, he had released some of the biggest hits of his career, »Superstition« and »You Are the Sunshine of My Life«, on »Talking Book«. With »Innervisions« he shifted into a different, higher gear. 

Stevie Wonder uses the nine songs to try out a wide variety of directions. First, there’s the jazz-R&B of »Too High«, with its polyphonic »do-do« vocalisations and intricate harmonies that undergo tiny variations from verse to verse, a vivid example of where Stevie Wonder’s reputation as the »Mozart of Soul«, as he was so fondly referred to, might have come from. In any case, one of the hallmarks of the Viennese star of classical music was the barely perceptible variation of his supposedly simple themes. 

(No) time for optimism 

»Visions« is more modest: concert guitar and bass are more than enough ingredients for this introspective soul-folk number. On »Living for the City«, the album’s most successful single, Stevie Wonder then switches to a furiously stomping groove. Instead of a chorus, Wonder includes an instrumental section where he uses an anthemic synth melody that is not so easy to whistle outright. He also has funk with rock potential in his repertoire, namely »Higher Ground«, which, as if to prove the point, was later covered by the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Finally, on »Don’t You Worry ’bout a Thing«, Stevie Wonder makes elegant use of Latin American rhythms. 

The versatile music is matched in its own way by the lyrics, through which he offers insights into his world view from changing perspectives. Apparently, it wasn’t really the right time for love songs and unbridled optimism. Rather, he clearly understands what is going on in society around him, even if he may not be as sharp a critic of the realities of black life as Curtis Mayfield or Gil Scott-Heron. 

One of the great things about »Innervisions« is that for three quarters of an hour, the music and lyrics create a world that the inner ear assembles into a powerful whole.

Nevertheless, he is aware of the dangers of drugs, especially for creative people (»Too High«), as well as the sometimes fatal expectation that a marginalised black man from the segregated South – »because where he lives they don’t use colored people« – could make his fortune more easily in New York (»Living for the City«). And regardless of his spiritual-religious stance, he knows how to distance himself from the false prophets of Christianity (»Jesus Children of America«). At the end on »He’s Misstra Know-It-All«, he gives a shout-out to the then US President Richard Nixon: »If we had less of him/Don’t you know we would have a better country«. 

»Innervisions« is considered Stevie Wonder’s best album, along with »Songs in the Key of Life« from 1976. Both can be safely left at the top of the list. One of the great things about »Innervisions« is that for three quarters of an hour, the music and lyrics create a world that the inner ear assembles into a powerful whole. He also recorded large parts of the album almost single-handedly, which is not a bad thing from an artist like Stevie Wonder. There is also always a reason for the guarded confidence that he shows in spite of all the criticism he expresses. For example on »Higher Ground«: »Gotta keep on tryin’/Till I reach my highest ground«.