The Revisit: Stevie Wonder’s ‘Innervisions’ 45 Years Later

Innervisions Cover

At the age of 23 with 16 albums under his belt already, Stevie Wonder boldly created a nine-track album besottedly conscious of Nixon era concerns. The brooding Innversions – a major departure from the singer’s loving, desire-dominated prior albums – is a deep dive into the willful yielding to his overt social and political consciousness. And while toting signature-Stevie synthesized scale tactics that would sweep anyone off their feet, each Innversions track keenly focuses on bettering society with awareness through truth and optimism.

This album, admittedly, is fifteen years older than I am but holds a permanent place in the upper pantheon of my personal music library, and I’m certain I’m not alone. Much of Innversions‘ reach has to do with the intentionally stirring composition of each song (most of which credit Stevie for a majority of the instrumentation including background vocals, percussions and physical hand claps), but also because of its unquestionably timely and timeless cultural relevance.

Opening the album is cautionary drug tale “Too High” which sets the tone for the kind of vivid realism that Stevie so accurately reads. Equally as vivid is the track’s musicality to which Stevie himself is credited with Moog (synth) bass, Fender Rhodes, harmonica, and drum instrumentation. A cartoonishly haunting “doo-doo-doo” refrain along with Wonder’s own vocal whole-tone scale descent melodically mimics the pitfalls of drug abuse as described in each verse. Ever the optimist, however, he follows the sobering number with a tuneful reimagining of the world. “Visions” is rendered in the same vein as Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech (which was first delivered almost exactly ten years prior to Innervisions’ release). A gentle and ephemeral guitar lead dances around ruminations of “the milk and honey land, where hate’s a dream and love forever stands.” It comes as no coincidence that “Visions,” soaked in all of its soothing idealism, was sandwiched between the album’s premonitory opener (as a balm) and its wildly soulful following cut “Living for the City” (as an examination of its contrast to America’s racists and discriminatory landscape). Now zooming out to address urban issues on a larger scale, the story of a Black man who grew up in poverty with “big city” aspirations of escaping the racist south and securing a job unfolds with the unfortunate reality (of that time and this one) of racial profiling. The track’s muse, upon arrival to the city, is immediately arrested – and after spending time in jail, loses hope and ultimately “spends his life walking the streets of New York City.” Stevie’s voice bloats with husky exacerbation as the song goes on and in the final verse, Stevie indirectly circles back to “Visions” singing, “I hope you hear inside my voice of sorrow/ And that it motivates you to make a better tomorrow/ This place is cruel nowhere could be much colder/ If we don’t change, the world will soon be over.” Whether intentional or not, the swirling synths punctuating “City” cleverly mock tonal motifs often heard in patriotic songs.

Innervisions’ A side ends with “Golden Lady,” a temporary retreat from bigoted America to prized affection. Even his vocal mood switches to a warm and thick timbre that’s immediately felt as evidence of the loving safety he sees in his subject. Many critics deemed the track a misfit among its politically-tinged counterparts. But with a closer look, the view of love as primary coping mechanism for life’s burdens becomes not only clearer, but especially relatable. Even now in 2018, we still turn off the news, put our phones down and tune the world out for some moments of escape with our lovers.

On to the B side which returns with an activist’s attitude on the funky “Higher Ground.” Stevie instructs listeners to be better by loving, learning and believing (faith based) more until our highest potential is reached. Ironically, the chorus’ prophetic gratefulness for another chance at life made him a walking example of what it looks like to “keep on trying” as he was in a near fatal car accident just three days after this LP’s release. Swelling in and out of a humble synth melody ornamented by tumbling drums and percussions, “Higher Ground” complements the calmed musicianship executed in “Jesus Children Of America” which earnestly (and respectfully) calls out the fake and foul entrails of religion. Wonder speaks with wisdom, grace and a sense of spiritual enlightenment by putting both “sinner” and “saint” under the same microscope; urging them equally to pray for forgiveness.

With the same sudden-but-easy slowing as a plane’s landing-stop, “All is Fair” rushes in with a roaring piano-led prelude that emotes the same sorrow in Wonder’s lyrics. But mourning broken love is very temporary when consolation arrives in the form of “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing.” A supreme, Latin hustle-inspired sonic canvas motivates dancing while Stevie’s attempt to ease a lover-friend’s worries float on his vocal inventiveness and dynamic harmonies. Finally, the (now) tear-tugging tale of a con-artist – “He’s Misstra Know-It-All” – starts out with ballad-like energy until the singer’s raw emotion fires a crescendo of weary frustration and concern. “Check him out now/ He’ll tell it all/ Hey, you talk too much, you worry me to death, hey/ He’s Misstra Know-It-All/ He’s some kind of fella/ Thinking of only himself/ He’s Misstra Know-It-All,” he sings with angered sarcasm. Believed to subliminally be about then-president of the United States, Richard Nixon, Misstra Know-It-All eerily fits the profile of America’s current president.

Innversions undoubtedly marks a turning point in Stevie Wonder’s career for its transcendence of Motown’s commercial aesthetic alone. It peaked to the number four spot on Billboard’s 200 charts, spent two weeks at No. 1 on the R&B/Hip Hop Charts, won the 1974 Album of the Year Grammy Award and was the singer’s first U.K. Top 10 album. But the project’s deepened writing power and intense sonic ferocity comingling to plainly deliver message in song is what should be most appreciated. Sadly, however, the sordid reality faced in this album reminds of the many issues (drug epidemic, poverty, racism, a deceitful president) we’re grappling with now four and a half decades later (opioid death toll, Flint’s now four-years-and-counting water crisis and Puerto Rico’s poorly-aided hurricane devastation, police brutality and flawed justice systems, senseless and discriminatory violence, yet another lying president). So, today we revere Stevie Wonder’s Innvervisions for both its musical beauty, and for being the most timelessly veracious, written snapshot of America. How one manages such precise photography with only the mind’s sight is still as much of a wonder now as it was 45 years ago.

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