When one attempts to come up with a list of great 70s albums, Innervisions by Stevie Wonder is one of the first that always comes to mind. Released in 1973, Innervisions was Wonder’s 16thstudio album and formed part of an amazing run of great albums for him during the 70s.
The amazing thing about Innervisions is the fact that not only did he produce the album, whilst also compose and play on every track, relying only slightly on the odd helping hand from a session player, but he was also only 23 when it was recorded. The recording of this album was pretty much a one man band, with Wonder playing drums, piano, bass and about fifty thousand different synths and keyboards, or at least that’s how it seemed. This album also represented quite a landmark recording for an African American in popular music, as Wonder became the first black artist to experiment with the newly evolving synthesizer technology and in particular the ARP Synth which he used to compose all the tracks on the album.
The lyrics on Innervisions play an important role and in fact you could make a case for this album being a concept album, with the songs often socio-political themes offering a commentary on early-70s American society. Just some of the things Wonder talks about in his songs include drug abuse in “Too High”, social anger and the poison of city life in “Living for the City”, and political ethics in “He’s Misstra Know-It-All” which in itself was a subtle dig at Richard Nixon. Wonder also has time for optimism and positivity despite the bleak outlook of American society he portrays. Love is a common theme on “Golden Lady” and “All in Love Is Fair”, while focussing on the good things in life and continuing to look upwards are championed in “Higher Ground” and “Don’t You Worry Bout a Thing”.
From a musical perspective Innervisions sticks largely to the soul, funk, R&B hybrid which Wonder had begun to develop successfully during the early 70s, but there are also hints of other influences in particular Latin in “Don’t You Worry” and even reggae in “Higher Ground”. As I mentioned earlier this album was quite revolutionary in its use of synths and keyboards which dominate all the songs across the album. Wonder experimented significantly with keyboards during the recording of this album and the results of this are seen throughout. This is particularly the case in his use of different keyboard sounds to achieve an overall layered and often heavily textured sound that ends up driving many of these songs, songs that are built entirely around piano and keyboard motifs. Wonder’s reliance on keyboards can also be seen in how he chose different sounding keyboards for different songs. On the more funk oriented up-tempo numbers such as “Too High” he tends to utilise more the Fender Rhodes electric piano, clavinet, and Moog synths, while on the soulful ballads such as “Golden Lady” he goes back to the more traditional piano. What this shows is that he knew what he wanted out of the keyboards and was able to match the right keyboard up with the right song, which is probably why the overall keyboard sound of this album sounds as good as it does, while working so well in the process.
In terms of the standout tracks on this album, well there is quality right through Innervisions and it is actually quite hard to find a dud song. Innervisions is definitely one of those albums that is almost completely perfect from start to finish, from the synth grooves of “Too High” to the story book masterpiece “Living for the City” and the amazing one-two album closer “Don’t You Worry” and He’s Mistra Know-It-All”. This is definitely a case of there being no real standout tracks but simply one complete standout album.
Innervisions has developed a strong legacy in the forty years since its release and is now widely considered as one of Wonder’s best albums, if not his best, as well as being one of the great albums in popular music. Rolling Stone magazine even ranked it as high as 23 in their list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. The praise around this album is no real surprise to me as Innervisions is an amazingly good album of melody, soul, funk and musical experimentation. In my opinion it is in the top five greatest soul/R&B albums of all time and helped to set the bar for future releases within the soul/R&B genre, not to mention its influence on studio production and recording full stop. But what probably makes this album that extra special is how Wonder used all his musical and creative talents to produce a social commentary on early 70s American society like nothing else at the time. He had a definite sense of what was going on and was able to translate it into music in such a vivid way, painting a picture through song of what it really was like in Americaat the time. Innervisions was the final result of an artist going out on his own musically, breaking away from his Motown routs to take a step into unchartered territory of which the results were nothing short of outstanding.