Stevie Wonder's output of four studio records beginning with Talking Book in 1972 remains a period of artistic masterpieces firmly rooted in a cultural and political terra firma that has rarely been matched.
The deeply funky Maybe your Baby, though not political, sets the tone of paranoia that could be said to characterize the aftermath of the 1960s. Later on the record, the defeat of utopian hopes and the faint, dying pulse of an American Left are heard, (or felt) on the song, Big Brother;
You've killed all our leaders
We don't even have to do nothing to you
you cause your own country to fall.
The richness of the analogue synths, the production of Talking Book marked the beginning of a string of albums that showed Stevie as no longer 'Little Stevie', but rather a fully mature artist doing what artists should do, which is giving a generation both a gift, in that those who receive this work are shaped, are taught by the works they receive, as well as paint a picture of the times they find themselves in.
The next record, Innervisions, saw Stevie recording virtually all the instruments. The album covers a wide range of themes and emotions. The song, Higher Ground redeems one's failings in life, negating regret by seemingly insisting on reincarnation while still alive, in this life, in this body. Mistra Know it All is a scathing attack on the Nixon administration. Too High, and Livin for the City describe a time when cities were an anathema, decades before they were put up for sale and had become the overpriced playgrounds for privileged young adults.
The next record, Fullfillingness' First Finale is a stark record in production, opening with the telling, Heaven is Ten Million Light Years Away, and the bitter, wrenching They Won't Go when I Go. This record was done after Stevie had been a car crash with a logging truck that left him in a coma. It seems to be a deep rethinking of what it is to be a human in the waning days of a tumultuous century. One cannot say it is a return to form, as it is the third of a string of brilliant records, but it does show an artist rethinking his place and role.
While 1977 saw punk as taking up the Vanguard for political music, disco moving to the forefront of popular music, and Peter Frampton and Fleetwood Mac inserting their bloated egos into the marketplace, Stevie was to release the crowning achievement of his career with Songs in the Key of Life. The title alone sort of says it all. By this time, the artist has shown us so much, art as activism, the depth and breadth of what a song about love could possibly be. Here, at the end of these four albums we could say, “Thank you, Stevie, you have made the world a better place”. A double album with a four song 45 bonus single included, which sums up the polarity of his vision in two ways. One is a line in the song, Ebony Eyes; Devastating Beauty. Indeed. The other is the song, Saturn, which seems to imply that for all his hope, all his love, things would be better anywhere than on this Earth.
I love you, Stevie Wonder