The test for whether or not an album is a classic has more to do with lasting appeal and endurance than instant impact. In 1973 Stevie Wonder’s “Innervisions” hit hard immediately, first. America was grappling with racism, poverty and a rampant drug epidemic, among other issues. At 23, Wonder was already a seasoned musician with several albums released as a musical wiz kid and as a fresh-faced adult. With a newfound cultural awareness and drive to push society forward, Stevie was fearless in addressing all the aforementioned issues.
Now jump to present day. Songs like “Living for the City” and “Higher Ground” are still ripe anthems, particularly spot-on today in this post Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman era our nation’s in. Critically acclaimed, of-the-moment film “Fruitvale Station” — about Bay-area Black man Oscar Grant, then 22, being wrongly gunned down by a white police officer — could have easily been tracked to “Innervisions.”
The album peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 chart and spent 89 weeks on the chart overall. It spent 2 weeks at No. 1 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and 51 weeks on the chart overall.
“Innervisions” is 40-years old today (August 3). True fans marvel through listens as if it was created weeks ago. Its genius is palpable, especially considering that Wonder damn near made the thing by himself. On several cuts, he’s credited for lead and background vocals, keys, synthesizer, harmonica, congas and drums, right on down to handclaps. In its fourth decade, Billboard celebrates this both timely and timeless set with a track-by-track review.
The album opens with a jazzy number about the pitfalls of using drugs. On the first verse he sings of a woman smoking weed. He notes that, “She takes another puff and says, ‘It’s a crazy scene.’/ That red is green/ And she’s a tangerine.” Clearly, she’s high. Though the track swings with doo-wops and high-hats bopping throughout, Wonder ends the party on a lyrical sour note: “Did you hear the news about the girl today,” he asks. “She passed away/ What did her friend say?/ They said she’s too high…”
“Visions” is as thoughtful and gentle as it is gloomy. Here Stevie sits back at his piano while guitarists pensively strum and he fantasizes about a place, “where hate’s a dream and love forever stands.” It’s not long before he realizes that the land of milk and honey only exists is his daydreams. This wouldn’t be the only time where Wonder visits another planet to find a little peace of heaven. Three years later he’d travel to “Saturn” on his heralded “Songs in the Key of Life” album.
“Living for the City”
Each verse here refers to an impoverished Black person, trying to make it through rough times. There’s a Mississippi boy, “surrounded by four walls that ain’t so pretty,” his dad that works 14-hour days for low pay and another man trying to find a job, but the quest’s like finding “a haystack needle/ ‘Cause where he lives, they don’t use colored people.”
“Living for the City” peaked at No. 8 on the Hot 100 and No. 1 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart for 2 weeks. The best part about this track is that it isn’t just chronicling of disenfranchised folks, but that its purpose is forward movement for society.
After a brief but poignant scene introducing a Black, new New Yorker being thrown into jail after he’s framed in a drug bust just minutes removed from the bus he arrived on, “City” crescendos with swirling synths, tumbling drums and Stevie’s voice growing huskier. “I hope you hear inside my voice of sorrow,” he prays. “And that it motivates you to make a better tomorrow.”
After towing listeners through the foul entrails of a bigoted America, Stevie lightens the mood with love on “Golden Lady.” That a third of the album passes before Wonder, an R&B singer at heart, gets to a conventional love song displays how diverse of a set this is.
This song is all joy. Stevie sweetly tells a woman that she has a “lovely smile that’s blooming/ And it’s so clear to me that you’re a dream come true/ There’s no way that I’ll be losing.” “Golden Lady,” like all of the songs on this album, builds from its start point. It begins with humble piano keys, a few guitar strums and high-hat taps, then swells to a bliss blast of organ work.
Now that he got that love stuff out of the way, it’s back to business for Stevie on “Higher Ground.” It’s a call to action (maybe the grooviest ever?), where he encourages people to “keep on learnin’,” outs politicians that talk while their “people keep on dyin’,” and those doing nothing to “stop sleepin’.” “Higher Ground” made it to No. 4 on the Hot 100 and No. 1 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs for a week.
“Jesus Children of America”
The bounce on this song suggests that it’s something to be danced to, but a close listen reveals that “Jesus Children of America” is really four minutes of Sunday school admonishment. From holy rollers to drug junkies, Stevie demands that they pray for forgiveness because Jesus Christ and Mother Mary are above, saddened by their wrongs. “You’d better tell your story fast,” he urges. “And if you lie, it will come to pass.”
“All Is Fair”
Musically, this is the simplest cut on the album. But it’s damp with regret and grief caused by a breakup. In the dynamic of the song, Stevie’s divorced his wife. “Two people vow to stay in love as one they say,” he sings mournfully through sullen keys. “But all is changed with time/ The future no one can see.” “All is Fair” balances out the euphoric feel of “Golden Lady.”
“Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing”
This cut has a fun, Latin soul feel with Stevie singing to a lady that’s down on her luck. He encourages her and promises to be right by her side through all issues and at the ready when happy days return. Here’s an opportunity to appreciate that Wonder’s bigger than any one genre, able to incorporate styles from outside Motown. “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” peaked at No. 16 on the Hot 100 and No. 2 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs.
“He’s Misstra Know-It-All”
The album’s closer is a cautionary tale about a hustler. He “makes a deal with a smile,” Wonder sings, “Knowin’ all the time that his lie’s a mile.” The song begins with a tempo as cool as the smooth talker seems to be. But as Stevie gets worked up and irritated about this thief who doesn’t honor handshakes and accepts no criticism, both Wonder and the music heat up. “If we had less of him,” Stevie yells, “Don’t you know we’d have a better land!” “You talk too much,” he continues, growling over raucous percussion and handclaps. Wonder, too, had much more to offer, musically. Even with a classic album as impactful as “Innervisions,” the best was still yet to come.