In We’re No. 1, A.V. Club music editor Steven Hyden examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be “popular” in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, he covers Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life, which went to No. 1 on Oct. 16, 1976, where it stayed for 13 weeks, and Jan. 29, 1977, where it stayed for one week.
There’s this thing that Stevie Wonder does with his voice when he gets to the emotional marrow of a song. I call it the “weeping push,” because whenever he does this thing, it elicits a reaction that often culminates with me turning into a heaping pile of blubbery goo.
You can hear it in the song “Lately” from 1980’s Hotter Than July, a record whose cover unwittingly invented the Alicia Keys look (plus mustache) 20 years in advance. Wonder first utilizes the weeping push in “Lately” at around the 3:10 mark; up until then, he’s relatively subdued while recounting the narrative about his woman cheating on him. Then he finally unloads on the recurring “goooood byyyyye, good byyyyyyye” line—his voice is much stronger than before, and yet it appears to be on the verge of breaking down into utter despair. From there he levels a series of weeping pushes, grinding out “premonition misses” and absolutely leveling the part where he sings, “they allllllllways start to cryyyyyyyyy, because this time could mean goo-woo-ood byyyyyyyyyye.” Listening to “Lately” is like watching your dad fight back tears: Just try to keep your chin from quivering at the combination of power and vulnerability.
I understand that Stevie Wonder is a professional singer, and therefore knows all the showbiz tricks about how to punch up a song at exactly the right moment. What I’m responding to in “Lately,” on some level, is a tried-and-true vocal technique being expertly executed by a top-flight technician. (It’s helpful in this regard to compare Wonder’s “Lately” to the hit cover version by Jodeci from the early ’90s, which runs two minutes longer in order to accommodate all of K-Ci and Jo-Jo’s show-offy—but not nearly as effective—vocal runs.) Wonder is like a great actor who’s been trained to suggest emotion without expressing it directly until the climactic moment, when his release becomes the audience’s release. He is, in other words, a genius manipulator.
And yet there’s something else going on in “Lately” that I can’t quite put my finger on. I’ve heard “Lately” dozens of times, and it always makes me feel at least a lump in my throat. I love this song because it’s familiar to me; I must want to cry every time I put it on. But it’s also fresh in some weird way, because I’m always surprised whenever I start feeling that sting between my eyes and the upper part of my nose. “Lately” lives up to the promise of what popular music is supposed to be—no matter how often you hear it, the feeling it conjures never goes away. And it has this effect on all kinds of people, from all sorts of backgrounds.
Now, I know this seemingly has very little to do with Songs In The Key Of Life, which came out four years before “Lately” and marks the pinnacle of Wonder’s career, both commercially and artistically. But the power of “Lately” (which came out as Wonder’s career was, if not on the decline, then plateauing) points to how truly monumental Songs was in the pop landscape at the time of its release. Those final 55 seconds of “Lately” help to explain how and why Stevie Wonder, for most of the ’70s, became the most popular popular-music artist ever—and it’s not even him at his artistic peak.
For every massively successful record I’ve covered so far in We’re No. 1, there’s a credible counterargument against it being a truly transcendent album. All of these records sold well initially, but many of them are not remembered fondly. A good number were not critically acclaimed, and they were never showered with awards. They made a lot of money, but they are not necessarily loved, at least not universally. For all the millions of copies these albums sold, there are just as many detractors, both at the time they came out and in retrospect.
“You can’t please everybody” is one of the oldest clichés in show business, but it’s more that just a salve for bruised egos—it’s an obvious truism that applies to practically everything. One of the few exceptions is Songs In The Key Of Life, a double album packaged with a four-song EP that was released on Sept. 28, 1976 after (what was considered at the time anyway) an interminable two-year wait. Wonder was already on a major roll; his recognition as the No. 1 guy in pop music came in the form of Album Of The Year Grammys for Innervisions in 1974 and Fulfillingness’ First Finale in ’75, and a lucrative $37 million record contract with Motown, the biggest for an artist at that time. Wonder’s elevated status was acknowledged by his fellow luminaries: When Paul Simon won an Album Of The Year Grammy in 1976 for Still Crazy After All These Years, he famously thanked Wonder for not putting out a record that year.
Songs is a hard, bold swing for the fences, employing more than 100 backing musicians and working on a canvas that incorporated pop, jazz, rock, and classical music. Wonder fearlessly wrote about inner-city degradation, both with a stately synthesized string-based backing on “Village Ghetto Land” and a relentlessly funky snap on “Black Man.” He’s religiously pious on “Have A Talk With God,” and lightly romantic on “Knocks Me Off My Feet.” He delves into jazz-rock jamming on “Contusion,” and then pulls back for the disciplined, feel-good pop of “Sir Duke.” Many of the songs leisurely run into the six, seven, or even eight-minute range, but they’re always guided by Wonder’s unerring sense for hooks. Wonder had the power and prestige to fully bend the ’70s superstar machine to satisfy his every creative whim, and he was determined to pull off a supremely grand gesture on a very large and public stage.
Songs was the rarest of beasts: It was expected to be nothing short of a masterpiece that also did blockbuster numbers, and it absolutely delivered on both counts. The album went to the top of the Billboard pop albums chart for 14 weeks, sold 10 million copies, spun off two No. 1 singles (“I Wish” and “Sir Duke”), won the Grammy for Album Of The Year (Wonder’s third in four years), and took the top spot in the Village Voice’s annual “Pazz & Jop” critics’ poll.
Out of all the albums I’ve written about, or possibly could write about, Songs In The Key Of Life seems to have achieved the broadest kind of popularity imaginable. I can’t think of another record that ranks among the best-selling albums of all time and produced multiple enduring singles and won Grammys and wowed a broad selection of critics. Usually satisfying just one of those criteria is enough to qualify as a popular work of art, but hitting on all four is a truly singular (and almost bizarre) achievement. Songs In The Key Of Life was a record that was adored by seemingly every single person who came into contact with it.
What’s even more incredible is that Songs In The Key Of Life would likely perform in the exact same way if it came out today—or at any other time. Looking over past “Pazz & Jop” winners, there are several records that openly emulate Songs’ outsized sound, ambition, eclecticism, and social consciousness, including Prince’s Sign O’ The Times, Arrested Development’s 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days In The Life Of …, and Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. Like Pet Sounds or The Band, Songs In The Key Of Life is a record that critics—unconsciously or not—are always trying to re-discover in different packages delivered by new artists. I’m sure it would’ve topped any critics’ list for any year, no matter the competition.
Commercially, Songs In The Key Of Life might have done even better at a time not so saturated with brilliant Stevie Wonder material. One of the album’s best-known songs, the ravishing “Isn’t She Lovely,” wasn’t even released as a single. The gospel-powered “As” was, though it only reached No. 36 in spite of being one of the most spiritually overwhelming tracks of Wonder’s career. Over a blissfully jaunty electric piano lick supplied by Herbie Hancock, Wonder sings about romantic love on earth and peace in the heavens like they’re one in the same, and “As” builds accordingly, with the backing chorus lifting him to a state of nirvana as he pledges to stay steadfast “until the rainbow burns the stars out of the sky.”
While Songs In The Key Of Life came to be embraced by both critics and listeners, the reviews for the record initially grappled with the intense hype that surrounded the album’s release, which had been delayed for months due to Wonder’s perfectionism. Critics see themselves as a counterbalance to the cheerleading of the rest of the media when it comes to pop stars, though some of the reviews for Songs seem based on an impossibly strict scale of absolute perfection.
Wonder was criticized by some for the album’s price: At $13.98 for an LP (or $15.98 for a cassette), it was, in the words of Billboard, “one of the highest superstar prices ever.” Strangely, the Rolling Stone review took Wonder to task for including too many excellent songs: “The album offers something fresh at each listening, something right for every mood,” wrote Vince Aletti. “But it’s also one of the record’s annoyances—it has no focus or coherence. The eclecticism is rich and welcome, but the overall effect is haphazard, turning what might have been a stunning, exotic feast into a hastily organized potluck supper.”
Like all double albums, Songs In The Key Of Life drew flack for being overstuffed—which, considering the record runs for 21 songs and nearly two hours, might seem warranted at first glance. “If Songs In The Key Of Life were a 45-minute LP, it would be the single greatest LP in the history of pop music," argued Stylus in 2007. The website even offered up a svelte nine-song tracklist “that just floors from beginning to end, with locomotive thrust and unforgiving excellence.” The Stylus version of Songs In The Key Of Life does really cook, covering the expected hits as well as deep cuts like “Pastime Paradise” and the pained “Joy Inside My Tears.” But it leaves off curveballs like the fantastically strange “Village Ghetto Land” and the tri-lingual “Ngiculela-Es Una Historia-I Am Singing,” where Wonder goes from Zulu to Spanish to English with an unfettered joy that qualifies as a glorious weeping push.
Then there’s “Knocks Me Off My Feet,” one of my favorite lesser-known Wonder songs and a no-show on Stylus’ list. Compared with the heights of Songs In The Key Of Life, “Knocks Me Off My Feet” is undeniably minor. But it’s still a great little love song that harkens back to Wonder’s roots in ’60s Motown.
It’s true: Songs In The Key Of Life overreaches at times. But therein lies the charm of an album that was intended to reach a large number of people via multiple entry points bound to appeal to some of the people all the time, and all of the people (at least) some of the time. And the album’s popularity in various public, critical, and industry circles shows that it was smashingly well-equipped to accomplish that goal.
Perhaps inevitably, Songs In The Key Of Life changed the arc of Wonder’s career in a way that defining double albums frequently do. An explosion of creativity that required considerable creative, mental, and emotional resources to pull off, Songs In The Key Of Life marked the end of Wonder’s “classic” period in a way that’s similar to what Blonde On Blonde did for Bob Dylan, "The White Album" did for The Beatles, Exile On Main St. did for the Rolling Stones, and Sign O’ The Times did for Prince. Not that Wonder curtailed his boldness; he followed up Songs with another double-album, 1979’s Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants, a mostly instrumental and truly insane work about the not-terribly-exciting unseen adventures of stationary green life. Suffice it to say, it did not do as well as Songs In The Key Of Life.
Seen from the vantage point of a contemporary music culture where artists construct their masterworks on laptops for an audience to play on their laptops, Songs In The Key Of Life stands as a testament to what the old, big music industry was capable of at its very best. Stevie Wonder was a man who sang, wrote, produced, and performed better than any recording artist of his generation, and he was given the opportunity to create music that was innovative yet pop, intellectual yet emotional, and romantic yet self-aware in million-dollar studios with some of the best musicians in the world.
For that, Stevie Wonder has earned our involuntary reactions to his music, from now until the stars burn out of the sky.
Coming up: The Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You