I’m listening to Mariah Carey read her memoir on Audible right now. I timed it so that I was listening in December because she’s basically the Christmas spirit in a big, sparkly human package. I was right, it’s definitely a mood. In discussing her early musical influences, she draws a line in the sand between Stevie Wonder and everyone else. I think I mentioned this in my post about “Sir Duke,” #58 on this list, that I can’t immediately think of any musician for whom I hold more reverence and have more respect. But it occurred to me that it’s probably not a hot take. I mean, obviously he’s much beloved, but this prompted me to consider whether he even has a peer. Generally lacking imagination, I went to the internet to find comparable artists in similar genres, who raised the concept of Marvin Gaye and Prince*. Marvin Gaye whose career was cut somewhat short by an untimely death never really became Pop Emeritus having died at age 45. Prince also died fairly young, but was more hampered by carrying around this edge to him that I think would prevent him from being The Best across generations and is more exclusive property of Generation X.
*I was prompted to wonder where Michael Jackson would have fit if not for his being a bona fide sexual predator. I suspect he’d be kind of impossible to place.
Though Stevie’s heyday was undeniably the 1970s, I managed to grow up knowing Stevie as a fully accessible--borderline basic--pop star. In the 80s, everyone in the world knew “I Just Called to Say I Love You” (not JUST from the Cosby Show, but that helped) and of course “Part-Time Lover,”* a song so 80s, I can barely talk about it. I grew up, in other words, with the understanding that Stevie Wonder was basically another version of Lionel Richie, which is so, so not accurate. Stevie gets shit on for his 80s output but he put out several genuinely high-quality songs in the 80s. I actually like “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” I’m not impervious to sap, it’s a very sweet song. “Overjoyed,” released in 1986, would probably make an appearance in my top 200 songs. It’s fucking beautiful. “Lately” might be an honorary 70s song, but is a genuine 80s song, released in 1981, and is also quite beautiful.
*”Part-Time Lover,” a song that my friend and grad-school contemporary Jason featured in his Sociology 101 course to illustrate a point related to infidelity, the specifics of which I can’t recall. I remember this fondly though, because it never occurred to me that a “part-time lover” was obviously a person having an affair. Clever. “Part-Time Lover,” come to think of it, also a song that Mariah Carey refers to not by name when she talks in her memoir about how fun it is to scat along with jazz musicians, saying that Stevie Wonder is the best pop-scatter there is. I never really thought about that as scatting but I guess it totally is.
But also! The man’s output in the 1960s is also crazy good. As with many Motown classics, these are songs that perpetually existed in the background of life, songs for which I was never specifically prompted to consider the general quality. Once I did; shit. The 1970s was his Album Decade, but “Uptight,” “For Once in My Life,” “My Cherie Amour?” Groovy as hell. His Christmas songs are standards. “Someday at Christmas” in particular, but “What Christmas Means to Me” need to be in the conversation when discussing best pop Christmas songs of all time.
He is a hard-core artistic machine and he managed to stay at the top of his game for three decades without being a dick about it. Nobody has anything bad to say about him. There’s no arguing that David Bowie is my favorite artist and that’s just a matter of taste. Bowie is held up as someone who endured for a long time by reinventing himself over a 12ish year period, making almost* no creative errors. Stevie Wonder, to his credit, was at the top of his game for twice that long and did it without resorting to cocaine-fueled borderline-nazi-sympathizing or like, merely rubbing anyone the wrong way. His drug freak out album had him talking to plants, not locking himself in his home and going all-in on Aleister Crowley.
*Added this qualifier in because I don’t feel like arguing about it, but I don’t think there was a creative error. Maaaaaybe Pinups. *Maybe* the title track to Aladdin Sane. But I barely consider those errors.
I became acquainted with 1970s Stevie in my 20s when Pete picked up a copy of Talking Book, which includes “Superstition,” widely considered Stevie’s best song. Songs in the Key of Life is technically my favorite and I’m not even sure whether I’d put Talking Book ahead of Innervisions in second place, but Talking Book will always hold a soft spot in my heart as the album that got me interested in Soul music. It’s a very pure album. The cover features Stevie wearing a velvet (!) robe. He’s sitting, head canted away from the camera. He doesn’t wear his signature sunglasses and his hand gently rests on the rocky ground beneath him. It’s a beautiful shot, capturing the mood of the album perfectly.
In addition to “You and I” and “Superstition,” Talking Book also includes “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” a tune mellow enough that I recall it from adult contemporary radio my parents listened to when I was a kid. Despite that association, I can appreciate it for the pop-standard drink of water it is. “Tuesday Heartbreak” and “You’ve Got It Bad Girl” are “Superstition’s” funk-lite little brothers and I love them both. “I Believe” is a song I still associate with the end of the 2000 major motion picture High Fidelity, which is fine, but it’s also a legitimately beautiful love song.
However, there is no more beautiful love song than “You and I.” Musically, it’s understated. Piano and light synthesizers come together in an almost shockingly simple melody. The feature is definitely Stevie’s vocal performance, which begins like the music quiet and understated. I’m not sure how they achieved the effect, but there’s a slightly hollow sound to it, like he’s singing in an empty room. The volume and intensity picks up at about the 3:40 mark, where he simply repeats the “you and I” refrain, giving us further “in my mind you and I can conquer the world in love” with so much soul and so much conviction, it’s difficult to imagine not getting goosebumps as he really lets it rip at the final “you and IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII--you and I!!!!!!!!!!!” He’s so vulnerable, so earnest, so (again) *pure,* it is simply *true.* This is it. This is as good as a love song gets.
And get this: “You and I” was the Obamas’ wedding song because OF COURSE IT WAS. Further, Barack has said that he and Michelle wouldn’t have ever gotten together if he didn’t love Stevie Wonder. That is very on-brand for such a charmingly loveable couple of personalities, isn’t it? Jesus fucking Christ.