Songs In The Key Of Life
REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/12/2006
It takes a while to get through Songs in the Key of Life, not only because of the sheer length but because of the monotony of some of the songs. There's a wonderful single album in here somewhere surrounded by a lot of filler.
Stevie Wonder was on a creative tear and had an outpouring of things to say, both about romance and social issues. The ambition on display is dazzling, as is Wonder's instrumental prowess and passion. He also was at a peak lyrically that he would not reach again.
So you can't help but respect this release, but you may find it difficult to return to again and again, the way you do with Innervisions. The first two songs alone are enough to deter the listener from going any further; subdued and far too mellow, they together take up 10 minutes without really going anywhere. "Village Ghetto Land," the third track, marries sarcasm to happy Victorian-era classical music and is an early highlight.
This gives way to two of the best-known songs, the humdrum "Sir Duke" and the strong, funky, Grammy-winning "I Wish." Also of note is "Pastime Paradise," a languid song that was later sampled by Coolio. Also look for the urgent undercurrent of the otherwise-lovely "Summer Soft."
Because of the double album length, it often feels many tracks are stretched out to fill the album. The pop hit "Isn't She Lovely," about Wonder's daughter, is marginally effective (if a bit saccharine) in its single form, but here an extra two minutes are tacked on. Same goes for "Black Man" and "Another Star." However, "As" is the one song that justifies its 7-minute run time, as the gospel-funk groove locks you in for the whole ride. And in case you didn't think Wonder could do fusion jazz, he proves otherwise with "Contusion," which is a more effective piece than anything Weather Report ever recorded.
The original album came with a bonus EP of four songs, which are tacked onto the end of the second CD. Of these, only "All Day Sucker" approaches the quality of the other highlights.
As with most double albums, Songs in the Key of Life suffers from being far too long and having too many songs that just don't land, but the ones that do are among the best work of Wonder's career.