Yesterday, Andre marked Stevie Wonder’s 67th birthday with a writeup on 1987’s Characters, an underrated record from what many consider to be the singer’s wan years. Today, on the actual anniversary of Wonder’s birth, I thought I’d share an old review I wrote of his still-most-recent studio album, 2005’s A Time to Love. As you can probably tell, at the time I wasn’t a big fan of post-’70s Stevie: I’d pretty much taken at face value the critical consensus that he fell off after Hotter Than July. Now, my opinions are a little more nuanced (but I still mean what I said about the Woman in Red soundtrack). Anyway, in the spirit of celebrating birthdays and feeling old, here’s what I thought about Stevie Wonder at 21…a.k.a., 12 years ago. I need a drink.
What makes worthy artists–legendary artists, even–go bad? It’s a question that’s been asked countless times, and about few artists more frequently than Stevie Wonder. Don’t get me wrong: I love Stevie Wonder. “Maybe Your Baby,” “I Was Made to Love Her,” “Living for the City“…these, and many others, have long since guaranteed a place in the pantheon for the former 12-Year-Old Genius. But I confess: this reviewer would be hard-pressed to describe Stevie’s latter-day output as “good,” much less “great,” “classic,” or “genius.” Indeed, if one considers Stevie Wonder’s “classic period” to have begun with “Uptight” and ended sometime after Songs in the Key of Life (with the execrable Paul McCartney race-relations duet “Ebony and Ivory” serving as the final nail in the coffin), 2005 marks at least the 25th year since the soul innovator and auteur began his disappearance into the depths of the MOR gutter.
In this context, then, A Time to Love must surely be the most important Stevie Wonder album since 1980’s Hotter Than July. Not only was the record long in gestation and much-awaited–it’s been ten years since Stevie’s last, Conversation Peace, a significant chunk of which decade was spent recording (and delaying) Time to Love–but if Wonder’s people are to be believed, it also marks a massive return to form. This is meant to be the album that finally reconciles the brilliant artist of the late ’60s and ’70s with the corn-rowed, sweet-natured caricature of the last 25 years: a virtual pillar of inconsequence who hasn’t changed so much as a daishiki since he was immortalized by Eddie Murphy’s spot-on Saturday Night Live parodies. That, of course, is one tall order, and it probably needn’t even be said that A Time to Love is no Innervisions. But if we can allow ourselves to put our impossible expectations aside and give this album the listen it deserves, Mr. Wonder has a bit of a pleasant surprise for us all: this “return to form” may have its flaws, but it remains a remarkably solid effort.
And Wonder remains (The Woman in Red soundtrack notwithstanding) a singular talent, quite possibly the hardest person to dislike in all of popular music. Simply put, the 55-year-old’s voice is gorgeous, as clear and honey-smooth as it was thirty years ago. Actually, if anything, he could stand to turn it down a notch. “If Your Love Cannot Be Moved,” which opens the album promisingly with a contemporary R&B beat and dramatic, low-register strings, soon devolves into numbing histrionics from both Wonder and his guest, gospel singer Kim Burrell–a tendency that repeats itself on more than a few of Time To Love’s “ballad” numbers. Excessive length is also an issue, most notably with the first four tracks: cute songs like “Sweetest Somebody I Know” and the jazzy, theatrical “Moon Blue” overstay their welcome after the three-minute mark or so, when they start to feel like exactly the kind of lightweight sentimentality that has become Wonder’s unfortunate stock in trade. If those two songs dip their toes in the sugar water, however, “From the Bottom of My Heart” dives in head first, with a title straight out of the Backstreet Boys files and an arrangement you’d normally have to ride in a hospital elevator to hear.
To be honest, it isn’t until “Please Don’t Hurt My Baby” comes along when the album really kicks into gear. A lite-funk jam worthy of Talking Book outtake status, the track breathes some much-needed life into the proceedings and reminds us that Stevie is still good for more than just the sappy ballads. Once “Please Don’t Hurt My Baby” has come and gone, it feels as though what was missing at the beginning of the record has been miraculously restored; the soul is back, and better late than never. Even the soft numbers start to gel. “My Love is On Fire” is smooth and seductive, never maudlin, with funky touches of flute and Isaac Hayes-style strings; while the album-closing title track with India.Arie has all of the epic quality of “If Your Love Cannot Be Moved” but none of the distracting bombast. And oh yes, there’s more funk to be had: “Tell Your Heart I Love You” bolsters its bluesy groove with synth bass and Clavinet (remember Clavinets?); then, of course, there’s the first single, “So What the Fuss.”
It’s fitting that “So What the Fuss,” one of the highlights of A Time to Love, finds Stevie accompanied by a fellow erstwhile pop genius, Prince. Like Prince, Stevie Wonder was an artist in need of a comeback. His talent is just too great to fizzle and fade away, contained by half-assed, mediocre records and the occasional charity single or awards show appearance. And like Prince (whose 2004 release Musicology restored artistic and commercial credibility almost single-handedly), Wonder found his comeback in the form of a sort of compromise: strongly recalling his classic work, but mellowed, tailor-made for an audience that continues to mature along with Wonder itself. It may not have the same kind of resonance as those glory years–few records do–but A Time to Love is possessed of a charm and a beauty all its own. If Stevie Wonder’s “form” is quality and craft imbued with soul, then this is a return to form indeed. Welcome back, Stevie. You’ve earned it.