Stevie Wonder’s ‘Songs in the Key of Life’: Music For Mankind

For Stevie Wonder, the early ’70s marked a period of explosive creative output rarely, if ever, seen in popular music. By 1976, the prodigious singer-songwriter had churned out five critically acclaimed releases in as many years, with three of them–1972’s Innervisions, 1974’s Fulfillingness’ First Finale and 1976’s Songs in the Key of Life–nabbing Grammys for Album of the Year.

But of the celebrated works, none has received more praise from critics and peers than 1976’s Songs in the Key of Life. Widely regarded as the visionary musician’s magnum opus, Songs has been ranked atop the Greatest Albums of Vh1, Rolling Stone, TIME and many others. Elton John takes a copy wherever he goes, and the BBC’s Chris Jones proclaimed that “life, literally, isn’t complete without it.”

Nearly 40 years after the album’s release, Stevie Wonder is just coming off a sold-out 12-city tour in which he performed the seminal collection from start to finish. And on Monday, February 16, stars from Andrea Bocelli to Annie Lennox to Tony Bennett will bring Songs back to life for Stevie Wonder: Songs In The Key Of Life – An All-Star GRAMMY Salute (CBS, 9pm).

Aside from the album’s superb production and the fact that most of the instruments were played by Wonder himself, exactly why the album has managed to retain its place in the pop music pantheon is hard to say. However, the album’s rare cross-genre accessibility and the poignancy of its lyrics–as relevant today as they were in 1975–certainly don’t hurt its cause.

Musically, Songs is an expansive and eccentric odyssey straddling R&B, jazz, pop, funk, afrobeat and salsa, replete with brilliantly awkward chord progressions and curve-ball key changes. Lyrically, it laments the social ills of racism and poverty, urges equality and compassion, and condemns suicide and corruption, all with a pervasive optimism that is almost mocking in its lightheartedness.

For instance, a hazy funk groove and playful harmonica riff punctuate the lyrics of “Have A Talk With God,” which address suicide and emotional turmoil while “Black Man,” a veritable seminar in racial history, is backed by dizzying synth riffs that seem designed to set the toes to tapping. On “Village Ghetto Land,” the harrowing image of a family subsisting on dog food while politicians “laugh and drink” is nearly dispelled by an almost jubilant string arrangement. Only on “Overjoyed,” “As,” and “Isn’t She Lovely,”(the latter an ode to Wonder’s daughter, Aisha Morris) do the songs’ bone-chillingly poetic lyrics with meet their match against tender, heartfelt melodies.

As a writer for Rolling Stone observed, Songs in the Key of Life “offers something fresh at each listening, something right for every mood,” and it appears that that was very much the album’s intended effect. The visionary artist himself said he took on the album’s title, which came to him in a dream, as a challenge, to “write about as many different things as I could to cover as many topics as I could.”

Although he achieved that admirably, it is the disarming hope with which Songs soars that keeps listeners coming back for more. Part poignant depiction of contemporary urban America, part socially-conscious plea for universal love and equality, Songs is as much the career paramount of a sublimely gifted artist as it is a masterfully crafted socio-political call to arms, designed with a surgeon’s precision to gently and gingerly nudge humanity from its slumber.