Monday, November 28, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #167 - Stevie Wonder - Music of My Mind

Music of My Mind highlights a key moment in Stevie Wonder’s transition from child prodigy and Motown star to independent adult artist responsible for some of the best music of the 1970s. Wonder’s previous album, 1971’s Where I’m Coming From, exhibited his increasing willingness to break free from the Motown mold, but it was with this album that Wonder defined the hallmarks of his imminent run of classic albums: extraordinary pop song craft, idiosyncratic humor, social commentary, technological innovation, unparalleled music virtuosity, and unbridled creative expression. Music of My Mind documents the sound of a young genius gearing up for a legendary string of critically and commercially successful albums that stand alongside the best works of modern pop music.

Stevie Wonder opens Music of My Mind with “Love Having You Around” and “Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You),” two expansive songs that explode the expectations and limitations he had grown up with as a part of the Motown family in the 1960s. By the time these two songs have finished, Stevie has treated us to over fifteen minutes of music that provide him ample opportunity to warm up, stretch out, and set the terms of his career as an independent artist. Up next, “I Love Every Little Thing about You” finds Wonder returning to the virtues of the joyful, three-to-four-minute pop song and demonstrating how to do it just right. Wonder’s frequent collaborator and one-time wife, Syreeta, would go on to kick off her 1974 sophomore album, Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta, with a ramped up and fully embellished cover of this gem. The impressive pacing of Music of My Mind falters somewhat with the fourth song, “Sweet Little Girl,” a stop/start study in the kind of characterization that Wonder would use much more effectively on later songs like “Living For The City.” Whether or not Wonder’s experiment with this lonely/drunk rebuffed suitor character really works, the song has some fun moments like when he drops a reference to Melvin Van Peebles’ 1971 film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. “Happier Than the Morning Sun” establishes Wonder’s knack for sweet, bright intimations of love and devotion and might just be one of his best, most underrated songs. “Keep on Running” injects a heady dose of funk and energy into the album’s second side and presages Wonder’s forthcoming heavy funk classics like “Superstition,” “Higher Ground,” and “You Haven’t Done Nothin’.” Although Wonder would refine the focus of his social commentary in the next few years, “Evil” allows a young, gifted artist to rail against the fundamental injustice of the world with confidence, anger, and righteousness. “Evil” concludes this remarkable album on the kind of sobering yet optimistic note that would come to define so much of Wonder’s work throughout the rest of the decade.

Just weeks after arriving at the White House in 2009, President Obama presented Stevie Wonder with The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, formally recognizing and celebrating Wonder’s cultural contributions and legacy. At the time, I hoped this achievement would inspire people to explore Wonder’s amazing, but surprisingly overlooked body of work. Wonder released Music of My Mind in March of 1972, just seven months before the first entry into his stretch of quintessential albums, Talking Book. Although Talking Book often tops lists of Wonder’s best albums, Music of My Mind unfortunately tends to fall by the wayside. If you’re looking for a point of entry for Wonder’s music in the 1970s, I strongly recommend spending some time with this warm, rambling, and powerful collection of songs.

-         John Parsell

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