Playing God
Songs in the Key of Life

when pressed to pick a favorite record from Stevie Wonder's extraordinary five-album, four-year run in the '70s, many people immediately side with Songs in the Key of Life: its 21-song, two-and-a-half-LP heft dwarfs the competition and lobbies for desert-island merit. Like The Beatles, Exile on Main St., and London Calling, Songs is the album in Wonder's catalog that gives you that excessive quality/quantity bang for your buck; accordingly, therefore, it is also the most problematic of Wonder's golden streak. There are noticeable cracks in its imposing architecture, from an overindulgence in song lengths to a haphazard pursuit of seemingly disconnected song styles. Songs' success (again, like The Beatles and Exile et al.), ultimately, hinges on these renegade factors; its ambition, excess, and self-assured swagger all add considerably to its appeal and its legend.

There's not a glaring problem affecting Songs as-is that requires a speculative reconstruction scenario such as this, but it makes for an interesting game to wonder how it would have turned out had Wonder not been a blockbuster artist capable of pursuing his every artistic impulse.

A few ground rules as I endeavor to transform the album, albeit theoretically, from the original LP-plus-EP into single-LP form: First, I'm considering this from the point of view of the LP age, not in terms of the contemporary definition of "album" that implies between 60 and 80 minutes of material. (Indeed, if one were to remove the "A Something's Extra Bonus" EP from the equation, the first four sides of Songs would nearly fit onto one 80-minute CD.) My reassembled, drastically abbreviated version of Songs restricts itself to roughly the 48-minute mark, which no preceding album of Wonder's had exceeded.

Secondly, the severity of said transformation will require an inordinate amount of subjectivity on my part. Surely, some Mahavishnu-worshipping fusion-head will cry foul at the omission of "Contusion," and while "Love's in Need of Love Today" is the perfect opener for a 105-minute record that unfolds and blossoms with reverent patience, it's too much of a protracted build-up for our more condensed purposes here. A major problem with shortening Songs is that so many of its tracks double or triple the standard pop-single length that you're eventually required to pick favorites over other favorites; a 1976-era LP of seven-minute songs would only be able to hold six of them. (Kinda like Ys, only with real songs, functional song structure, and compelling melodies. Zing!)

My goal, then, is to reimagine Songs as a high-energy, high-impact single LP, taut with crackling pop and practically devoid of the fatty miscellanea that makes it one of pop music's most compelling post-modern artifacts—something that just floors from beginning to end, with locomotive thrust and unforgiving excellence. A friend of mine once said, "If Songs in the Key of Life were a 45-minute LP, it would be the single greatest LP in the history of pop music." Here's proof.

1. "Sir Duke" (3:54)
Let's just get right down to brass tacks and gun for the song with the immediate payoff—the well-loved single that simultaneously honors and demonstrates the visceral appeal of pop music—bypassing the majority of the slowly percolating Side One in the process. "Sir Duke," Wonder's tribute to the recently departed Duke Ellington, is both one of his best-known tunes and one of his most infectious, a red-hot mover and shaker with a badass horn section. Though this may be a most predictable lead-off track, it's nonetheless heart-stoppingly direct: this record's curtain ain't raised, baby, it's razed.

2. "I Wish" (4:12)
Songs' other massive single, "I Wish," is bound at the hip of "Sir Duke," the song that precedes it on the original album, adding youthful reminiscence to a musical education's fade-out. Separating the two songs would be a cheerless and inadvisable operation. Their one-two punch generates the sort of unbridled ecstasy that 98% of other artists sometimes glimpse in half-remembered dreams. From one nasty groove to another, from righteous chorus to righteous chorus, the best eight minutes of your life are concluded here, repeatable on demand.

3. "All Day Sucker" (5:05)
The four-song "A Something's Extra Bonus" EP is frequently viewed as decadent filler, an appropriate reaction for a skeptic who hasn't actually heard the thing. "All Day Sucker" boasts one of the record's more formidable grooves, a bit slower and less spunky than some others, but filthy-funky nonetheless. It deserves more prominent placement on the album than the EP's outskirts, and sequenced here, would serve to keep the record's blood flowing with wild-eyed abandon.

4. "Pastime Paradise" (3:27)
This song boasts the album's most fascinating arrangement, combining a gospel choir, Hare Krishna chants, and Latin percussion (but no drums!) to create a chilling rhythm monster. Wonder's synth strings are equally striking, especially how they stab out from the darkness in staccato pulses. The transition from "All Day Sucker" to this song would be some kind of motley complement, one mid-tempo heave replacing another.

5. "Ordinary Pain" (6:23)
Probably the funniest song Wonder has ever cut, thanks in large part to Shirley Brewer's ego-deflating response vocal that just tears the track's second half to shameful shreds. She flips the pensive ballad on its side, stomps on it with a funky verbal throw-down, and leaves it convulsing in its reconstituted groove. Few pop superstars have ever displayed such punishing humility.

6. "Joy Inside My Tears" (8:29)
My personal favorite song on the album. I love how, as it flogs the life out of that repetitive progression, the song digs itself deeper into a mucky trench and pulls you down with it. On paper, the concept is boring, but in practice, it's a spellbinding example of Pavlovian refrain—easy to explain, easy to follow, but damned near impossible to renounce.

7. "Ebony Eyes" (4:08)
Another refugee from the "A Something's Extra Bonus" EP, "Ebony Eyes" is reminiscent of the Motown factory style of old, a tight, simple ditty overshadowed by the more elaborate songs saturating the album. Sure, it's probably the kind of song Wonder could write in his sleep, but its stride is assured and its succinct pop sensibility (a rarity, of sorts, for an album such as this) is a palette-cleanser for the epic closing tracks to follow.

8. "As" (7:08)
This deep cut sweats to the promises of eternity ("until the day that 8x8x8 is 4") and summons transcendence to the dance floor. Wonder may have more abrupt pop songs, but none that speak this urgently. It's his "Hey Jude," only faster and more primal. Herbie Hancock guests on the Rhodes, but he's merely a pawn at the mercy of the controlled chaos.

9. "Another Star" (8:28)
Like an album-ending repeat of the album-opening "Sir Duke" and "I Wish" combination, "As" and "Another Star" make an astounding pair. Taken together, the two songs put up impenetrable façades of similar rhythms and refrains; "Another Star" actually manages, with a Latin gait, to up the rhythmic stakes and demands of physical endurance. Listening now, relishing the final song's long fade-out, the condensed Songs ends just like the full-length version always has: frantically, as if only time can inhibit a proper summation.

Zeth Lundy is the author of the book Songs in the Key of Life, an installment in Continuum's “33 1/3” series.

By: Zeth Lundy
Published on: 2007-01-17
Comments (4)

Today on Stylus
October 31st, 2007
October 31st, 2007
Recently on Stylus
October 30th, 2007
October 29th, 2007
October 30th, 2007
October 29th, 2007
Recent Music Reviews
Recent Movie Reviews