For most of Generation X and many old Millennials, we have been conscious of Stevie Wonder’s existence for longer than any other living artist. I remember Stevie Wonder singing “Superstition” on Sesame Street in 1973, and I was born in 1984. It’s very likely that Stevie Wonder is the first black person I ever saw. And yet, decades later, he remains unknowable.
Listen to the opening track, “You are the Sunshine of My Life.” It’s a simple song, you probably think you know it. But by the end of the song, as the vocals fade out, you’re left with many questions: Who the fuck are those other two people singing, and have they always been there? “Apple of my eye,” seriously? And who’s playing all that background percussion and are they going to be okay? (Daniel Ben Zebulon, please pick up a white courtesy telephone).
And while I try not to make too much of album covers, I have no idea what’s going on here. The relationship between the cover and the music inside is out of sync. Let me be ABSOLUTELY CLEAR that I am not making a Stevie-is-blind joke, but the fact remains whoever pitched him this cover did not describe what I’m seeing now: A world-class artist wearing a velvet robe messing around with some dirt. Had they said that, might he have asked for other options?
Cover notwithstanding, this record sounds better than 99.9% of everything else, is layered and textured beyond mortal comprehension. This gives it the power to get away with things other records might shy away from, most notably repetitious melodies and sentimentality. It’s an amazing record: The enigmatic use of synthesizers, buried guitar solos that lesser engineers or bigger egos would have shoved forward, background vocalists singing leads, funk made not for dancing.
Stevie Wonder makes universally accessible music from another dimension, which is the truth at the center of my inability to know him in spite of his constant presence in my life. No complaints.