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Stevie Wonder

Tamla 326
Released: August 1973
Chart Peak: #4
Weeks Charted: 89

Stevie WonderThe Greening of Motown continues apace, with performers who once flourished under the company's autocratic guidelines (the Four Tops, Gladys Knight) seeking success elsewhere while others have been let loose to try and divine the boundaries of their newly-found freedom. Among the latter, Stevie Wonder has become the brightest light of all, his work since Music of My Mind consistently innovative and lustily creative, propelled by a confidence and artistic maturity that only comes through the dogged patience and understanding of day-to-day experience.

Innervisions is Wonder's 14th album, his third since fully becoming his own man, and it shows off his talents to luminous advantage. A master stylist and arranger, his music has a grace, a studied balance, that does more than just set off each cut in perfect harmony with its neighbors. Indeed, Innervisions may be as close to a concept album as Stevie will ever produce. Its tracks are coupled by a hovering mist of subdued faith, of a belief in the essential rightness of things; and if he seeks to offer no real solutions (should he?), neither does he allow for any easy outs, any quick glossings of the surface.

Stevie Wonder - Innervisions
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The themes are simple. Life is tough but life is beautiful; find your own way, but make sure you're not simply playing the fool and kidding yourself. He gently chides the escapism of drugs ("Too High"), as well as the "Misstra Know-It-All"s who wear their ignorance like a shield. He saves his blessings for those who maintain a reverie of the world as it should be, as it inevitably is, the "Higher Ground" which must never be lost sight of or denied. It's interesting to note here that in the song Wonder directs at the "Jesus Children of America" (adding transcendental meditators and junkies into the spiritual mix), he merely asks them not to "tell lies." Later, in "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing": "Everybody needs a change/A chance to check out the new/But you're the only one to see/The changes you take yourself through."

In this sense -- and it's to his credit that Wonder's preoccupations with such siddharthic messages never slide into the blandly predictable -- Stevie functions a bit like Curtis Mayfield, aware of his role as a musical and spiritual leader, in that order, but hardly to the point of shrillness. His concern with the real world is all-encompassing, a fact which his blindness has apparently complemented rather than denied. "I'm not one who makes believe," he sings in "Visions"; "I know that leaves are green," Even when his characters run into crippling obstacles -- the young Mississippi boy who's spent his life "Living for the City," only to arrive at Port Authority and be unjustly thrown in the slammer -- he never loses that basic optimism, the ability to once again rise and return to the fray.

Musically, this philosophy is blended into nine songs whose depth and range of technical judgement is flawless. Though Stevie plays most everything on the album, instrumentation is held to a careful minimum, centered around electric piano, guitars, a roundhouse rhythm section and a discrete, unobtrusive use of synthesizers.

"Higher Ground" is the single and should notch Wonder his lucky 13th gold certification, though that's not to say any of the other cuts couldn't function on the Hot 100 equally as well. Both "Living for the City" and "Jesus Children" rank high on the danceability index, while "All in Love Is Fair" performs the same painfully exquisite ballad function as "Blame It on the Sun" played for Talking Book. But the best moment is reserved for Stevie, aurally getting off the bus in "Living for the City": "Wow," he says, "New York! Just like I pictured it!"

An eye for an eye. On Innervisions, Stevie Wonder proves again that he is one of the vital forces in contemporary music.

- Lenny Kaye, Rolling Stone, 9/27/73.

Bonus Reviews!

Stevie Wonder's musical progress, since he declared his artistic independence from the standard "Motown Sound" a few years ago, has been one of the most heartening and fascinating developments in pop music. Wonder is a first-class melodist: he is a composer whose construction of his melodies shows a craftsman's touch; his lyrics get a story told; he has a distinct style as a keyboardist and harmonica player and is one of the best men on either instrument: as a singer he has range, power, and sincere depth of feeling. He flings his talent joyously at the listener with high energy and a sense of camaraderie.

Innervisions is a stunning album. Taken as a whole, it is a modern work of popular art. Of the individual pieces, "Living for the City" is a concerto, the story of a Mississippi black who comes to New York and finds out he's in worse trouble up North than down home. It is not a diatribe; it is a cold-fact recital. "Jesus Children of America" is Wonder's way of saying that religious feeling is fine as long as it's genuine and not just a passing fad, a symptom of a longing to be converted temporarily to something. "Visions" is a poem about individual identity and peace of mind. "Misstra Know-It-All," about a Superfly-type dude who is really, like John Lennon's song character, a "nowhere man," combines the feel and power of "Hey Jude" with Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues." Both "Too High" and "Higher Ground" are examples of Wonder's wonderful mixtures of jazz, pop, and soul styles. Listening to them is like watching a parade -- you just can't help being fascinated by the variety, color, and spirit of it all.

Ah, but I have saved the best news for last. It is an exquisite ballad, surely one of the best written in the last twenty years: "All in Love Is Fair." All of Wonder's gifts have been locked into this tune, and he gives a moving performance. It is the stand-out piece in this collection of stand-outs, and further proof that Stevie Wonder is a national asset.

- Joel Vance, Stereo Review, 1/74.

Where is Stevie Wonder going? Each LP presents a new dimension to his mind, which is on a progressive probing course. The liner credits Stevie with playing all the instruments on seven of the nine tunes. So in essence this is a one-man band situation and it works. His skill on drums, piano, bass, and Arp are outstanding, and all the tracks work within the thematic framework. All the songs are his own creation, and they show a deep concern for sketching studies of serious situations. The lyrics are printed but in very small type, which doesn't do justice to their impact. There is a sensitive feeling to the repertoire and the way it is presented in the packaging, which shows that much time was taken in developing this look into the soul of mankind. "Visions" feature's some tasty guitar by David T. Walker. "Living For The City" has a bitter ending with police sirens and a cop busting a brother on the street. Best cuts: "Visions," "Living For The City," "Higher Ground" (which sounds like a solid single), "Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing."

- Billboard, 1973.

Just when Stevie had some momentum going, he went and put together a concept album of homogeneous music and rather typical lyrics. Unlike his last two albums, there are no real low spots on this album, which I suppose is an improvement, but there are no songs on Innervisions which are truly outstanding either. There's no "Superstition," no "I Believe When I Fall In Love With You It Will Be Forever." By constructing a solid ground from which to work, Stevie has lowered the ceiling, and put a damper on his talents.

Jon Tiven, Circus, 11/73.

Stevie Wonder's Innervisions is a beautiful fusion of the lyric and the didactic, telling us about the blind world that Stevie inhabits with a depth of musical insight that is awesome. It's a view that's basically optimistic, a constant search for the "Higher Ground," but the path is full of snares: dope ("Too High"), lies ("Jesus Children of America") and the starkly rendered poison of the city ("Living for the City"). Wonder seems to say that all people delude themselves but have to be well to pay their dues and existentially accept the present. "Today's not yesterday,/And all things have an ending" is the way he puts it in "Visions," the key tune of the album -- pretty yet serious, harmonically vivid. There's a lot of varied music here -- Latin, reggae, even a nod to Johnny Mathis ("All in Love is Fair") -- but it's all Stevie, unmistakably. He plays most of the instruments, through overdubbing, and there isn't a phony note anywhere. Word had it that, after his August car crash, Wonder wouldn't be playing concerts for several months. We wish him well: with an album like this, he shows he has a lot of strength -- musical and emotional -- to fall back on.

- Playboy, 1/74.

With his last three albums Stevie Wonder has replaced Sly Stone as the most significant individual black innovator in the twin fields of R&B and rock. He has also replaced him as the most popular black music personality: Wonder's appeal now crosses every boundary. His music always sounds free and, at his best, he does things no one else can. "Living for the City" has the most compelling -- pounding, throbbing, unyielding -- beat to be heard anywhere at all. And though that same cut's audio montage would crumble in the hands of a lesser artist, he makes it work through the force of his personality. There is something complete about Stevie Wonder, and one senses that he is not only exceptionally important today, but will continue to be for as long as he chooses.

- Jon Landau, Rolling Stone, 6/6/74.

It's neither Wonder's attraction to cliches nor his proud belief that he's the peer of anyone who can read this that leads him to render his mental life into a visual metaphor. It's because he's got no use for abstraction -- he's technical/physical rather than logical/conceptual. Here once again he treads the fine line between glossolalia and running on at the mouth. Any suggestion that the bitter defeats of "Living in the City" are as unfactual as the "dream come true" of "Golden Lady" is simply irrelevant, because both are the truth -- and unless he's snuck one past me and "Golden Lady" is about the sun, which would be interesting, that song is the worst one here. This is music that makes you believe in faith, almost like Stevie, who only knows that leaves turn from green to brown becaue he's got no choice. A

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

That Stevie Wonder should have penned "Higher Ground," about a sinner's chance at life, shortly before a near-fatal auto accident was uncanny. The day after his first concert following the crash, Stevie told me in a Rolling Stone interview that, given the choice between Talking Book and Innervisions, "I prefer Innervisions as a total statement... I was going through a lot of changes. 'Higher Ground' is the only time I've ever done a whole track in one hour, and the words just came out. That's the only time, and that's very heavy."

At the Grammy Awards, held on March 2nd, 1974, Innervisions won Album of the Year and Best Engineered Recording (engineer Robert Margouleff). It was mined for hit singles. "Higher Ground" and an edited version of "Living For the City" reached the US Top 10, while "He's Misstra Know-It-All" got there in the UK. "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing" was a lesser American hit.

In 1987, Innervisions was chosen by a panel of rock critics and music broadcasters as the #38 rock album of all time.

- Paul Gambaccini, The Top 100 Rock 'n' Roll Albums of All Time, Harmony Books, 1987.

A bigger smash than Talking Book, Innervisions took the formula of the previous album and built massively on it. Not only did the charts benefit from "Higher Ground", "Living for the City," "Don't Worry 'Bout a Thing" and "He's a Misstra Know-It-All," but again Wonder penned a new brood of classic songs that would outlive even his own interpretations. Many of the hits from the album were unusual in format like the seven and one half minute "Living for the City" with its central "playlette" and sound effects telling the, on reflection histrionic, story of the poor urban boy tricked into running drugs. "Misstra Know-It-All" ran to twice the length of a commercial single and contained an irresistible singalong chorus in the mould of the Beatles' "Hey Jude."

Recorded at the Record Plant, LA the album possesses a sound of surprising quality and delicacy. The review CD does not quite live up to the expectations of it. The French-made MPO pressing has a soft and rounded sound running to blurred indistinction at times. The hilarious spoken intro over piano to "Don't You Worry...," though more clearly articulated from CD, doesn't have quite the expected sharpness; cymbals are leaden and piano lifeless.

Alternative CD pressings (from Japanese plants) may be worth investigating if they are available.

- David Prakel, Rock 'n' Roll on Compact Disc, 1987.

This recording represents the pinnacle of a very important artist's career, and of his physically blind, but nonetheless extraordinary humane vision. For all intents and purposes, and for all of its richness and variety of texture, it is essentially all Stevie Wonder. He personally created and arranged every sound heard. His canvas stretches from the tough realities of ghetto streets to the transcendent joy of spiritual acceptance, each rendered with an original, unique musical palette. The feel is a little more jazz than funk, the result is simply glorious pop music -- uplifting sound and message. The CD sound is a marked improvement over the LP, with greater clarity, definition, and dynamics; although hiss remains fairly evident throughout. A+

- Bill Shapiro, Rock & Roll Review: A Guide to Good Rock on CD, 1991.

Stevie Wonder's first album was titled Little Stevie Wonder, the 12 Year Old Genius, and although Motown probably awarded Wonder the appelation for superficial reasons (like the existing genius of soul, Ray Charles, Wonder was blind), he had earned such attention immediately upon his arrival. His wonder years, catalogued on a wondrous triple-album called Looking Back, are full of amazingly diverse hits, from the thrilling scatting of "Fingertips Pt. 2" to the puppy love of "My Cherie Amour," then back again to the riotous "Uptight," his finest Motown-formula-conforming single.

Still a teenager, Wonder put across a convincing, original version of Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind"; it was clear early on in a career that will probably go on into the next century that his interest ranged far beyond what was normally acceptable at Motown. Yet Wonder's maturation into adulthood gave him the oppportunity to write and record what he wanted. This happened while other great Motown performers, like Marvin Gaye and the Temptations, were also feeling their oats, and for a brief time the label seemed like a place where freedom had no limits. Wonder's hits continued, no matter what he chose to cut.

Of his breakthrough early-seventies albums, when, along with Sly Stone, Wonder discovered that he was stretching the limits of what African-American pop could include, the most visionary of them was undoubtedly Innervisions. Wonder's clear voice was always a pleasing presence, though in particular situations, like the devastating final verse of "Living for the City," he could reveal his rage by roughening his delivery. Innervisions is an interconnected suite of songs -- many of them segue right into each other -- but it's not the navel-gazing variety implied in the typically hazy album title. "Living for the City," "Higher Ground," and "He's Misstra Know-It-All" are among Wonder's most trenchant world-aware tunes, and "Too High" examines insularity unsparingly. Wonder plays nearly every instrument on his record, and this do-it-yourself confidence inspired many who were listening, particularly a Minneapolis kid named Prince Rogers Nelson.

It's inarguable that Wonder has softened in recent years. Still, he's no fossil, as I was pleased to discover at an arena show in 1986. The truest moment of the three-hours-plus performance arrived midway through "Superstition" (from Talking Book), when he unleashed a scathing, hideous scream, as if he'd awoken from a bad dream. Immediately, he realized he'd gone too far, stepped back, and meekly reentered the song, a bit embarrassed by the outburst. Stevie Wonder smiled. He was comfortable again.

- Jimmy Guterman, The Best Rock 'n' Roll Records of All Time, 1992.

For my money, Wonder's finest moment. Three massive hits, "Higher Ground," "Living for the City," and "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing," were drawn from the album. "Golden Lady" and "He's a Misstra Know-It-All" could have been equally successful. From the titles alone, one can see that Wonder had developed a social conscience and, as many other singer/songwriters of the time were doing, he politicized his music. Intelligent lyrics that one can boogie to -- what more could one want from popular music? * * * * *

- Rob Bowman, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

Stevie Wonder seemed an absolute pop music genius during the 70s, and Innervisions is the pinnacle of that sensibility. Nearly every song -- "Too High," "Golden Lady," "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing," "All in Love is Fair" -- is a classic. But it was the gritty "Living for the City" that really set folks on their ears. * * * * *

- Lawrence Gabriel, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

Stevie Wonder had been on the Tamla scene since his "Little Stevie" early teens and much was expected of him after his hit Talking Book album of early 1973. Fans of the blind, multi-talented soulster were not disappointed. Made almost without breaks -- like Marvin Gaye's seminal What's Going On -- Innervisions starts with the bouncy synth and complex vocalizing of "Too High" (a hit in the 90s for Red Hot Chili Peppers) before launching into the epic "Living For The City," a well-told musical story of ghetto kids living "just enough" for the city. It was terrific, with a deftly throbbing beat, added street samples and some great vocal phrasing from Wonder. At once generational and specific, "Living For The City" remains a key influence. The relentlessly swinging "Higher Ground" kept up the pressure while the jazzy, snazzy "Don't You Worry About A Thing" was only outclassed by the "He's Mista Know It All," an energetic, hand-clapping jam of a track, complete with smart words and a Louis Armstrong impersonation from Wonder, who'd also written, cleanly produced and arranged the set. On Innervisions Wonder finally managed to project his own musical visions outward, and made one of the key albums of the decade.

- Collins Gem Classic Albums, 1999.

In a creative surge at his '70s prime, soul music's ultimate prodigy perfectly blends the political and the personal, setting a standard of excellence for sheer diversity with sweet singing, precision playing and beautiful use of synthesizers supporting genius pop songwriting. The hesitant rhythms of "Too High," the social commentary of "Living for the City" and the funk exuberance of "Higher Ground" flow together like liquid gold. * * * * *

- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.

One of the all-time great one-man band albums, Innervisions also represents Stevie Wonder's full embrace of the ARP synthesizer, a common motif among musicians of the time because of its ability to construct a complete sound environment. Wonder was the first black artist to experiment with this technology on a mass scale, and Inncervisions was hugely influential on the subsequent future of commercial black music.

The whole message of this album seems to be caution -- Wonder seems to be warning the black community to be aware of their own plight, strive for improvement, and take matters into their own hands. But this is all against the backdrop of the harsh social realities of America circa 1973, and nowhere does this conflict hit home more than in Wonder's magnum opus, "Living for the City," a raw piece of modern blues on which Wonder played every instrument. The message of urban struggle resonates even more strongly now than it did thirty years ago, proving that the "inner-visions" of this LP were visionary as well.

Innervisions was voted the 31st greatest album of all time in a VH1 poll of over 700 musicians, songwriters, disc jockeys, radio programmers, and critics in 2003.

- Joe S. Harrington, VH1's 100 Greatest Albums, 2003.

Stevie Wonder may be blind, but he reads the national landscape, particularly regarding black America, with penetrating insight on Innervisions, the peak of his 1972-73 run of albums -- including Music of My Mind and Talking Book. Fusing social realism with spiritual idealism, Wonder brings expressive color and irresistible funk to his synth-based keyboards on "Too High" (a cautionary anti-drug song) and "Higher Ground" (which echoes Martin Luther King Jr.'s message of transcendence). The album's centerpiece is "Living for the City," a cinematic depiction of exploitation and injustice. Just three days after Innervisions was released, Wonder suffered serious head injuries and lay in a four-day coma when the car he was traveling in collided with a logging truck.

Innervisions was chosen as the 23rd greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.

- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.

Innervisions closed a trinity of albums begun with 1972's Music Of My Mind, the final fruits of the burst of creativity that followed Wonder's renegotiated creative freedom under Motown. Released barely seven months after Talking Book, Innervisions was no final scraping of the barrel, however. As Efram Wolff's startling cover painting suggested, this was Wonder's most ambitious, sprawling and, yes, visionary album yet.

Before its release, Wonder took journalists on a blindfolded bus ride across New York City, experiencing urban life like Stevie would, followed by a similarly blindfolded playback of the album. One can only wonder what hearing "Living For The City" must have felt like, an epic aural thriller (complete with dialogue and sound effects) tracing a naive country boy's descent into crime and death in the rotten Big Apple. Politics drove the album; the melancholic "Visions," the righteously funky "Higher Ground" (later butchered by the Chili Peppers), the smouldering "Jesus Children Of America" all spoke of an America fast coming apart at the seams. But Stevie was never preachy: the luscious, celebratory "He's Misstra Know-It-All" was lower-case "p" political, with the deftest of touches. And, as if to prove his versatility, the melodramatic "All In Love Is Fair" was later covered by both Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand.

"I felt something was going to happen that would be very, very significant," remembered Wonder later of his prophetic mood at the time. Indeed, a horrific car accident while touring the album -- leaving Wonder in a coma and cruelly robbing him of his sense of smell -- would signal the beginning of another new chapter.

- Stevie Chick, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.

Stevie Wonder's transition from child star to self-reliant artist began with (what else?) a contract dispute. In 1971, when he turned twenty-one, the blind multi-instrumentalist negotiated for, and eventually received, complete control over his music -- the sounds, the words, the mixes, everything. Motown wasn't happy at first, but what followed was an explosion of creativity that reverberated powerfully throughout the music world and beyond. Between Where I'm Coming From (his first self-produced work, issued in 1971) and Songs in the Key of Life (1976), Wonder created four milestone albums, one right after another. These mind-blowing works represent a confluence of craft and heaven-sent inspiration not attained since. They've all got buoyant, stretchy-elastic rhythms, and refrains so resolutely positive they defy gravity, and lyrics of substance. Wonder's incredible string of classics expand the definition of "message music" to include hard-grooving, instantly addictive radio songs.

Following the example of labelmate Marvin Gaye (whose 1971 album, What's Going On, was one of Motown's early forays into social commentary), Wonder began addressing the problems of urban America on his magical 1972 release, Talking Book. With Innervisions, he cranks things up a notch. He writes idealized prayers and strident calls to awareness about drug use ("Too High," perhaps the funkiest antidrug song of all time). He tackles poverty and racism (the striving "Higher Ground," as well as the seven-minute narrative about the struggles of a Southern family, "Living for the City") and then sermonizes more generally on the evils of arrogance ("He's Misstra Know-It-All").

Wriggling through graceful vocal melodies and ad-libs as daring as those from any jazz musician, Wonder speaks truth to power. But he doesn't harangue: Everything comes wrapped in Wonder's resolutely bright, indomitable spirit -- particularly on the sun-spashed "Golden Lady" and "Don't You Worry 'bout a Thing," a blithe fantasy in son montuno rhythm that comes near the end of the record. One of his indisputable flashes of radio genius, "Don't You Worry," turns on the Spanish phrase Todo está bien chévere (Everything's gonna be alright). Listening to Wonder sing, it's almost impossible not to share that feeling.

- Tom Moon, 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, 2008.

Motown's definitive surrealist road trip (see: the choogling "Higher Ground" and "Jesus Children of America") is also a paragon of real-world storytelling (the classic urban chronicle "Living for the City").

Innervisions was chosen as the 21st greatest album of all time by the editors of Entertainment Weekly in July 2013.

- Entertainment Weekly, 7/5/13.

"We as a people are not interested in 'baby, baby' songs any more, there's more to life than that," Stevie Wonder said in 1972. With Innervisions, he offered a landmark fusion of social realism and spiritual idealism; he brings expressive color and irresistible funk to "Too High" (a cautionary anti-drug song), "Higher Ground," and "Living for the City," a cinematic depiction of exploitation and injustice.

Innervisions was chosen as the 34th greatest album of all time in a Rolling Stone magazine poll of artists, producers, critics and music industry figures in Oct. 2020.

- Rolling Stone, 10/20.

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