My All-Timers: 17. Stevie Wonder — Innervisions
Though this one comes in at #17 on my list, I’m not sure if I have played any record more than Innervisions, since I first heard it five years ago. If we have people over at our house, family or friends, and I’m really quickly trying to find something to play on our stereo, my brain immediately defaults back to Innervisions. If I have students coming to the room for class and I want to play some music but can’t think of anything, I just throw on Innervisions and let the groove overtake us all (and by “us all” I mean “only me as the students hardly even notice anything playing”).
I constantly play Innervisions because it is a record that sounds good in any setting, in any situation, among any group of people. Maybe you wouldn’t play it the day after the death of a loved one, but you might play it a week after, since you would need a replenishing of the soul and a reminder that there are beautiful things in the world. The mere existence of Stevie Wonder and his range of abilities are proof that in this strange accident of human life, wonderful abnormalities are all around us. So when Innervisions is playing, the sounds of those abnormalities are passing through whoever is hearing it, leaving a trail of joy.
Innervisions is a true expression of Stevie’s mind partially because he plays almost all of the instruments on the record. People help out with guitar and bass here and there, but Stevie does just about everything: piano, bass, drums and whatever else needs to be jammed on to make the puzzle whole. You don’t need to be reminded that Stevie’s blindness makes this fact remarkable, but you need to consider a song like “Living For the City,” where Stevie does absolutely everything, to be stunned by his power. That smooth groove at the beginning, the relentless drumming, the several layers of background vocals that barely even sound like him…it’s almost unbelievable that he was able to do it all, and at the age of 23, no less. I can’t imagine being that age and having such a clear picture of what I needed to do to make such perfect music.
The record is constructed masterfully by showing off Stevie’s range of learned sounds. “Too High” starts it off with an up-tempo beat smothered in off-kilter Rhodes piano melodies, and after it has gotten you ready for a dance party, “Visions” kills the beat and gives you five minutes of gentle acoustic strumming and elegantly-played upright bass. The sequencing is almost perverse in its refusal to keep the party going.
But it doesn’t take long for “Living For the City” to get it poppin’ again, and the mood rarely lets up from there. “Golden Lady” cruises along and does like five key changes at the end, which is insane. “Higher Ground” was covered by the Red Hot Chili Peppers when they turned it into a punky thrash tune, and it works just as well in both genres. “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” was used in the climactic dance scene of Silver Linings Playbook, a delirious weird movie that may not hold up upon repeated viewings, but hit the mark by using a bold, sexy, carefree song to symbolize the chaotic bond formed by the main characters. Just try and hear that song while you’re with your significant other and not be compelled to dance all over them. It’s impossible.
I’m just now learning that the record’s closer, “He’s Misstra Know-It-All,” is rumored to be a takedown of then-President Richard Nixon. I have no idea how this rumor got started, as I can’t find any confirmation from Stevie himself. But it would make sense — in 1973, Nixon was really starting to feel the heat from Watergate and was being seen as even more of a con man than years before. Stevie was political, but not overtly, so it would be fitting for him to write a hit piece on Nixon that masqueraded as a song about a street hustler: “He’s a man with a plan, got a counterfeit dollar in his hand.” And though its breezy nature eases you in, the righteous fury and indignation of having a crook for a President makes Stevie play even harder, to the point where by the end of the song he’s doing a bunch of rollicking drum fills and singing with a growl. The things a shitty President can do for music, huh?
So take my advice: the next time you are in need of a good record to impress your guests and make them see you as both intelligent and sexy, Innervisions is your jam. But beyond the surface level of being a cooler person by jamming it, Innervisions opens up your heart and soul in ways that you may not have thought possible. Bathe yourself in its light.