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Of the hundreds of artists who’ve passed through Motown records, pop icon Stevie Wonder has been the most committed to the label. Surviving through the many fabled fiascos—from artistic exploitation to corporate totalitarianism—that turned its history into so much ripe-for-miniseries fodder, Wonder is the sole artist whose entire discography has been captured on Motown. Not even founder Berry Gordy’s former pinup princess Diana Ross, or her musically superior counterpart Marvin Gaye, can make that claim.
Wonder was among the first at Motown to shrug off Gordy’s restraining collar to venture outside his “Sound of Young America” aesthetic. Even during the ’60s, Wonder was already composing hits for himself and his labelmates, as well as playing with unusual forms. On the eve of his 50th birthday, Motown has finally assembled At the Close of a Century, a four-disc box set that serves as the most comprehensive anthology yet of his nearly 40-year career.
From the start, Wonder’s seemingly boundless artistry had many people wondering about the depths and directions it would take. Motown marketed him more as an advanced instrumentalist than as a soul crooner on his first two albums, The Jazz-Soul of Little Stevie and Tribute to Uncle Ray, both released in 1962. It’s too bad that this box set doesn’t contain any music from those albums; they foreshadowed the studio magic that Wonder would concoct during his ’70s glory days with masterpieces like Songs in the Key of Life, Innervisions, and Talking Book. From the early period, only 1963’s exhilarating “Fingertips: Parts 1 & 2” would become a hit, displaying his command of the harmonica, piano, drums, and bongos. And it would take two years and several failed attempts before he would produce another hit, “Uptight (Everything’s Alright).” Released in late 1965, the song introduced Stevie as a singer who could achieve top-of-the-chart success and sparked an almost endless stream of hits for the next three decades.
Detroit’s ’60s and early-’70s music scene is commonly thought of as encompassing Motown only, but the city also had a thriving jazz, blues, and Latin music community during that time. Wonder’s music served as the perfect conduit for those influences to coalesce without straying too far away from Motown’s rhythmic boilerplate. At the beginning of the ’70s, it was Wonder, along with songwriter and producer Norman Whitfield and Gaye, who helped Motown soup up its lyrical content and song structures. Wonder’s fetish for technology also helped keep the label on the vanguard of R&B’s expanding sonic landscape and distance Motown from its greatest competitor—Stax Records.
Wonder’s music progressively became more adventurous, but At the Close of a Century proceeds in a rather dull chronological manner that illustrates his artistic growth but stumbles in its attempt to capture his full artistic spectrum. His mastery in penning pop confetti (“Uptight,” “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” and “You Are the Sunshine of My Life”), social commentaries (“Heaven Help Us All,” “Living for the City,” “Skeletons”), and billowing ballads (“Superwoman,” “Send One Your Love,” “Ribbon in the Sky”) transcends all periods of his career. But the collection’s chronological sequence plays down his complexity, making it all too easy for people to listen only to Little Stevie Wonder, or to the ’70s pioneering genius, or to his more dubious post-revolutionary efforts of the ’80s and ’90s.
It’s Hitsville, U.S.A.-oriented, with hardly an iota of quirkiness; the set forces Wonder’s music to speak for its own greatness and makes no attempt to re-examine some of his more obscure works, such as his 1968 instrumental album, Eivets Rednow (that’s “Stevie Wonder” spelled backward) or the spacey 1979 soundtrack Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants, or even the later, more forgettable works like 1995’s Conversation Piece.
Maybe the reasoning behind such straightforward programming is that Wonder was one of the pioneers of the concept albums. His 1971 album Stevie Wonder’s Greatest Hits, Volume 2 marked the swan song of “The Sound of Young America.” Not content to continue the string of mostly interchangeable ditties, Wonder let his recording contract with Motown expire and didn’t re-up for a year—until he had full artistic control. Before signing with Motown again, he moved to New York, spent time in studio isolation, and reinvented himself—he was introduced to the Moog synthesizer. During that period, Gaye was also fighting for artistic control; the result was his 1971 masterpiece, What’s Going On. Gaye threatened to leave if the label didn’t release the somber album. Fortunately for both Gaye and Motown, it became one of the company’s top-selling records of all time—and a perfect template for Wonder’s expansive efforts. A year after Gaye’s artistic breakthrough, Wonder followed with his first concept album, Music of My Mind, a sprawling, introspective collection of moody funk.
But for all the social commentary that would typify his mid-’70s work, Wonder’s albums were never as melancholy as What’s Going On. Like Gaye, he addressed the Vietnam War, with songs like the urgent “Higher Ground,” and urban decay, with miniature symphonies like “Pastime Paradise” and the timeless “Living for the City.” But he buffered grim realities with dreamy optimism and sentimentality, as in “Visions” and “I Wish” and the earnest, corny tributes “Sir Duke” and “Isn’t She Lovely.” Polemic and pop sugar would continue to alternate in Wonder’s work, but not that of Gaye, who spent most of the rest of his career documenting his battles with inner sexual and religious demons.
Century lazily dedicates more than two discs to Wonder’s mid-’70s period. Except for “Jesus Children of America,” all of Innervisions appears on the set—in the same order as on the original album; so does all of Side 4 from Songs in the Key of Life. His most unified song cycle, Secret Life, is poorly represented. That record is quite similar to Earth, Wind and Fire’s That’s the Way of the World in that both were soundtracks whose fame was greater than that of their respective movies. The period from Music of My Mind to Songs in the Key of Life (1976) brought forth Wonder’s most innovative and imitated music, but songs like the galloping robo-funk of “Race Babbling” from Secret Life would have easily illustrated Wonder’s influence on today’s electronica scene.
Also curiously missing are songs that never made it to albums, or material from more important, more complete albums like 1963’s Workout, Stevie, Workout and the early-’80s People Move, Human Plays, which didn’t see the light of day. The more hard-core a Stevie Wonder fan you are, the more likely you’ll be bored with this collection.
That is, the set is less revelatory to serious fans than to casual listeners, who would probably drop the bucks for the enclosed 92-page booklet. Unfortunately, the booklet, too, disappoints. It contains complete discographies of both singles and albums, but otherwise it fills out with fawning, shallow text about the genius of Wonder’s work without offering much detail about the formal musical studies that aided his compositional skills during the ’70s, the nature of his recording sessions, and his battles for artistic control. Neither the four discs nor the booklet begins to comprehend the scope of Wonder’s genius. CP