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Song by song review of “Songs In The Key of Life” (Compared to previous albums)

November 4, 2011

Dusting off stuff out of my old files that I didn’t want to fill my regular website with (especially when it was on AOL, and space was limited).

After years of listening to Stevie Wonder’s 70’s albums in order and comparing Songs In the Key of Life with the previous four albums (Music of My Mind, Talking Book, which I grew up on, Innervisions, and Fulfillingness First Finale), I’ve figured out why Songs doesn’t sound quite the same as the earlier work, as has been noted by many people (even though the instrumentation was similar). A lot of it has to do with both melody and the Moog bass (along with the Moog background and clavinet, which are obviously missing for the most part). These created the unique sound Stevie had under engineers and co-producers Bob Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil.

Generally, Songs In the Key of Life is seen as Stevie’s greatest project ever. The concept, maybe, but musically, it just isn’t as good aesthetically. I guess it does have more of a pop appeal, while the earlier stuff was too deep and jazzy for the disco era and later. I learned from biographer John Swenson (Stevie Wonder, Harper & Row, 1986) that the album was produced in a time of chaos, with the ousting of engineers Margouleff and Cecil who had greatly enriched his sound with their “TONTO” sound machine (and studio technician Gary Olazabal then promoted to engineer), and other issues within Stevie’s production company (with his brothers involved) and his life (he had planned to quit the music business and go to Africa around that time as well). All of this would affect the production.

(Complete discography, and each album has its own linked article, for those not acquainted with songs mentioned here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stevie_Wonder_discography)

Love’s In Need of Love Today:
Fender Rhodes tune akin to You Are the Sunshine and Smile Please. Close, yet Love’s In Need is not as melodic as those songs, and it doesn’t have the range of harmonies those songs do. Vocal lines are a bit similar to Smile Please, yet they too are lacking. (The verses are really small and the chorus kind of reminds me of a concert version of a song, where one or two lines from a verse are repeated over and over again– “Love’s…in need…of love today…don’t delay…send yours…ri-ght away…). As Swenson says, the lyrics are very weak. Flower Power was a good later song that recaptured the feel of You are the Sunshine, as well as Come Back As a Flower (Substituting acoustic piano for Fender Rhodes).

Have A Talk With God:
The synths and low vocals are right out of the previous albums, yet it lacks the piano, Fender or Clav backing of the earlier stuff like it.
Vocal melody could have been improved a bit.

Village Ghetto Land:
This was a total new sound (more realistic synth strings), so of course it would not fit in the earlier albums. I wonder what Margouleff & Cecil would have done with it. (Probably would have fit if done in Clavinet or maybe even piano).

[Edit: Recently listened to M&C’s two “TONTO’s Expanding Head Club Band” albums on Rhapsody, and two tracks from the second album, Tontomotion and Cameltrain, do have a more realistic sounding string synth like this song. So it actually could have sounded pretty much the same. Don’t know why Stevie never used that sound from TONTO, then.]

Contusions:
The Margouleff & Cecil influence definitely remained in this tune. (The ascending chords at the beginning of each verse). As no instrumental pieces were released on the previous albums, it is also different, and as Swenson says, the live versions (such as MusikLaden and the Rainbow Theater concert, which could be found online) sounds better than the album version. The electric guitar groove also sounds like what everybody else did (standard production techniques, which Stevie with his Clav and Moogs left in the dust from 1972-4), and a clavinet in place of the guitars would have definitely improved it.

Sir Duke and I Wish:
I Wish is definitely the “Superstition” and “You Haven’t Done Nothin” of this album, but now the Clavinet is replaced with Fender Rhodes, synths, and a muted guitar. These just do not give it the sound the earlier counterparts had. Likewise, Sir Duke could have been a new “Tuesday Heartbreak” if it had a Clavinet added to a wah-wahed Fender in the Background. (The Fender by itself is nicest with the more melodic songs rather than the funk tracks).

Knocks Me off My Feet and Summer Soft:
These are among the prettiest and closest to the earlier productions of this album in terms of vocal and instrumental melody. A Moog bass would have given them the “fuller” sound of the earlier songs, and on Summer Soft, a Clavinet instead of guitar.

Pastime Paradise:
Same scenario as Village Ghetto Land. Because of the classical sounding harmony (which one may associate with a harpsichord), this too would have been great with Clavinet.

Ordinary Pain
This would almost fit as is. The end part could have used more of an instrumental backing such as a Clavinet (other than the synth bass) as the similar ending of “I Believe”.

Isn’t She Lovely:
It sounds nice with the Fender chords, but notice it consists mostly of whole note chords (i.e. one chord per measure of four beats), so there is virtually no instrumental melody (other than a light synth “triplet” groove). Moog bass and backgrounds (instead of synth strings toward the end) could have made up for this (as in Creepin’). Also the high pitch singing doesn’t seem to fit Fender Rhodes songs. I guess this reflects his joy over his first child, so it’s good in its own right.

Joy Inside My Tears:
The harmony and vocals could have fit, but the synth strings is what sticks out. Swenson was really hard on the song –“An incredibly boring 6½ minute dirge that only Stevie’s most dedicated fans could find listenable”. I thought so at first, but then it was playing on the radio once (in the ’80 or ’90’s!), and I took note of the ad libs at the end and came to appreciate it much better. That was classic Stevie vocals, much like Signed Sealed Delivered or Maybe Your Baby. So A different instrumental arrangement is probably what would have made this song great.

Black Man
This really sounds like classic Stevie, but what’s missing is of course the clavinet! He uses a combination of guitars and basses and synths probably to mimic the sound, but the real thing would have been nicer!

I Am Singing
Great pretty song with synths replacing Clav. With the gritty vibrating sounds of the clav, it would have been one of the most interesting songs ever! (think Look Around, Happier than the Morning Sun and I Believe [without the piano] rolled into one).

If It’s Magic
Sounds different because of the harp, which was never used in the earlier stuff. The piano version I saw on a TV special (and available on YouTube) sounded better to me, and it would have been nice with Fender Rhodes as well.

As:
This too has a pretty close Fender Rhodes track and vocals as the prior albums, but once again, a Moog Bass would have made it fuller.

Another Star:
Swenson says “the mix is poor, and [George] Benson’s [guitar] solo suffers as a result”. Proof of this; I was hardly aware that there was a guitar by Benson in the song!
To me, “Bird of Beauty” seems to be what this song was aiming at. Lou Rawls’ “This Song” (From around the same time; from the same album as “You’re Gonna Miss My Lovin'”) is a much prettier sounding tune similar to this. Both songs had a nice Fender harmony (Bird Of Beauty mixes it with Clav, and This Song mixes it with acoustic piano). The melodies on those songs were better, while Another Star, like Isn’t She Lovely uses whole notes (even though there is a Latin piano groove beneath it).
Stevie is singing high pitch here again, and this would have been nice as a climax, but songs like this are nice starting off low. This would have also probably fixed the problem Swenson addressed.

Online, what appears to have been an earlier version of this surfaced a few years ago. It started out with a nice Fender Rhodes and acoustic guitar opening, and he’s only scatting and repeating “deep inside your heart”. However, the harmonic lines are clearly the same as Another star. The scale increases, to one point where the Fender chords sound like “You Are The Sunshine” (the 0:50’s to the 1:00 area). Then it drops back down to the beginning, and the clip fades out as what would be the second verse begins.

Saturn
A Moog (horn sound) for a change. Very similar to Evil, but lacking the Moog bass of course. What he’s saying is interesting, yet, the way he drags out the lines makes it sound not as good as his other ballads (not much melody). A 1975 copyright, this (if not If It’s Magic or the Harmour Love duet with Syreeta) could have been his first production with Olazabal. His final Olazabal song, “Keep Your Love Alive” from 1990 is the same way, pretty much.

This also had an earlier version that crept out online, and while the piano sounded the same, the Moog horns (only use in this album, and not as good as the earlier albums) were not yet added, and the lyrics were totally different; being a typical song about a broken relationship. The words and emotion sounded much more genuine in that form. (Can’t seem to find this online now).

The words are from the bridge (between the main verse and the chorus. Wonder how the chorus went).

only love you needed to see you through
I was over it or I’m back in love,  over then………

If that’s so, I may reply
You’re a lady can you tell me why
I read the letter that you’re sending to my best friend……..

Funny that something like this would be turned into a song about a planet he wants to go to because of problems on earth. (The “orange snow” is actually accurate for Saturn’s moon Titan. Man, that was almost seven years ago already when we finally got that picture of the surface. Waited almost 30 years for that!)

The song was said to originally be about Stevie’s home town of Saginaw, MI, then as he played around with the words, co-writer Mike Sembello decided on the “Saturn” concept. So then were these lyrics from that inbetween “playing around” time? It still seems that these would have been original, and that making it a non-love song (whether about Saginaw, or Saturn) was the later concept.

Thinking about this further, I could see those lyrics as being from the original Saginaw song. He could have been lamenting a love he had in his town, and then he grew up and moved away, and discovered she was now falling for his best friend. Then the chorus, instead of “Going back to Saturn, where…” would simply be “Going back to Saginaw…” with descriptions of the town, that would be replaced by descriptions of the planet. (The common first syllable made it dawn on me). Yeah, it all makes perfect sense now; that must be it!
I still think he should have kept the original lyrics.

Ebony Eyes:

This may have fit as is. Could have been from “Where I’m Coming From” (That Beatles-esque style was more in style back then). A Moog bass would have been nice.

All Day Sucker:
Ahh! Finally, a Clavinet in the lead! (It’s only other use was background in Love’s in Need of Love Today). But this song is the epitome of what I am discussing. In the verses, both main Clavinet chords and vocals fall on the beats (with some syncopated kicks in there). This is the principle of plain traditional music. Think of the grammar school music class. There is also a very weak Clavinet groove beneath it, (sounds muted and almost like random keystrokes. You have to listen to CD with headphones to really hear it), plus a gaudy synth bass sound, but almost no real melody. Tuesday Heartbreak, Superstition and all the other Clavinet tracks are light years ahead of it. The bridge (“All day sucker…try-in’ to get something fo-r nothin’) is very good (funky) however, and makes up for it a bit. (“Outside My Window” from the following album sounded almost as good as the clavinet productions, even with the guitar replacing clavinet, however).

When the 2005 album A Time 2 Love came out, with a track called “Please Don’t Hurt My Baby”, fans cheered the return of the Clavinet, and of course compared it to Superstition. But it really is more in the vein of All Day Sucker, with the chords following the beat. An unreleased song he did in concert, “What You Don’t Know”, though done in electric guitars, has much more the layered harmony feel of Superstition.

Easy Goin’ Evening
This is a mellow Fender Rhodes track that aims at You’ve Got it Bad Girl and Superwoman, but of course is not as fast and free flowing as them. Those songs had Moog Bass and more melody as well.


One may think “Well, he couldn’t keep using the same four sounds (clav, Fender Rhodes electric piano, acoustic piano and Moogs), so he had to expand”. But he could have expanded with those same instruments, and you saw this beginning in Innervisions and Fulfillingness First Finale (and the unreleased tracks), the last two albums produced in the earlier style. If the songs on “Key of Life” are converted back to those production methods, they would have sounded better, and yet not sound like the same old stuff.

Besides, the “new direction” Stevie was going in seemed to move back to standard soul production techniques (strings, albeit synthesized until the 80’s when he brought real orchestras back into his music; electric guitars and acoustic and electric bass and synth bass other than the Moog; rhythm more important than melody, etc. The 1984 and later style was just a more synthesized version of the same thing), so if those standard instruments could be used over and over by everyone, (including Stevie now) without getting tired, then the Clav and Moogs could have as well. (As this was not only how others produced in the late 70’s, but also basically how Stevie was produced before the Margouleff & Cecil period, —the old Motown sound; it was actually a step backward for him). The Isleys stuck with Margouleff & Cecil for 2 more albums, and even then most of the albums after that up until 1983 kept the sound.

A theory I have as to the radical change in the mid-70’s, of both his music and focus, might stem from the accident that almost killed him right around the time Innervisions was released (Three years before Songs was released). A log had struck him on the right side of the head. He was probably already working on the projects that would become the next two albums after Fulfillingness, and that was when the total shift occurs.

A newer interest of mine is personality theory, both temperament and MBTI type. There is a version of the theory that discusses right and left brain functional perspectives. Growing up on Talking Book, it seemed to reflect an Introverted, Sensing, Thinking, Perceiving (ISTP) perspective. Also, him pragmatically rebelling against the Motown machine when coming of age. The classic temperament would be a “Melancholy-Sanguine”; the Melancholy being an artistic, thinking loner, and the Sanguine being very current sensory-focused (and thus also artistic, in a more “performer” way), and quick to take action.
What people who discuss type usually assume him to be is Introverted, iNtuitive, Feeling, Judging (INFJ). The iNtuitive part reflecting his abstract focus (like the “love mentalism” Swenson dismisses from the Songs sleeve notes, plus other album “concepts”). Feeling, because of his altruism, which really surfaced around that time. In 1975, he even considered quitting the business to move to Africa. And “Judging” indicates that the Feeling (which is a “judging” process) is oriented towards the outer world of people and action, rather than an inner code of ethics (though some think he is a Feeling Perceiver, which fits that latter definition).
Clearly, some cognitive shift was occurring during this period.

He seemed much more “concrete” (focused on tangible reality rather than the meanings of things) and “logical” (focused on the mind more than the heart) before the accident. ISTP and INFJ are actually close, cognitively, using the same four (out of eight possible) function-orientation combinations, though in a different order (One has the S and T out front, and the other has the N and F). P is associated with the right brain, and J with the left brain. So ISTP and INFJ are actually right/left brain alternatives of each other, (called “Supplement”). So the accident apparently shifted him more to the left brain perspective, and hence, him appearing to be an INFJ.
Full treatment on this: https://erictb.wordpress.com/2012/05/17/stevie-wonder-infjistp-analysis/

Here’s the later project focusing on the transition of the sound in general, that did make it to my web space:

http://www.erictb.info/TONTO.html

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4 Comments
  1. Damo permalink

    Hi there,I was just wondering if this is a personal opinion based review or if you are in some way qualified to formulate the opinions. I hope that doesn’t seem rude, it’s just that I am writing an essay on SITKOL for college and I am thinking of using some parts of your review as a reference. If it is just a review of personal opinion without some professional qualification it would not be suitable for my purposes. However if it is a review based solely on personal opinion I must say; it is very well put together and really informative. One way or the other thanks allot
    Damien

    • Yes, it’s my own opinion, but it also agrees to some extent with things that many fans have said. And since I reference Swenson, who was a biographer, maybe he would be a more professional source you could use.
      Otherwise, thanks!

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