Songs in the Key of Life
Released: September 28, 1976
Peak: 114 US, 120 RB, 2 UK, 110 CN, 6 AU
Sales (in millions): 10.0 US, 0.3 UK, 11.0 world (includes US and UK)
Song Title (Writers) [time] (date of single release, chart peaks) Click for codes to singles charts.
Tracks, Disc 2:
Songs by Wonder unless noted otherwise.
Total Running Time: 104:38
4.695 out of 5.00 (average of 22 ratings)
Quotable: “A rare moment when a master was faced with a new level of pressure, and responded by taking his game to new heights.” – Josh Tyrangiel and Alan Light, Time magazine
Awards: (Click on award to learn more).
About the Album:
So how do you follow two Album of the Year Grammy Awards (1973’s Innervisions and 1974’s Fullfillingness’ First Finale)? First, you take some time off. Wonder didn’t release any new material in 1975, a fact acknowledged by Paul Simon when he took home the Grammy for Album of the Year. He said, “I’d like to thank Stevie Wonder for not releasing an album this year.” Second, you come back and win Grammy’s 1976 Album of the Year.
Motown had renewed Wonder’s contract for an unprecedented $13 million. He then worked relentlessly, sometimes logging 48-hour sessions. NRR The result is often regarded by fans as Wonder’s best album. It “featured more true classics than even most great artists write in a lifetime.” TL
Originally packaged as a double album plus an EP, Songs in the Key of Life, was “Wonder’s longest, most ambitious collection of songs.” AMG It “is a Grand Artistic Statement, meant to demonstrate Wonder’s ability to entertain just about any audience he chooses.” EK It is “like stumbling into a cave full of treasure” JM and not knowing “which piece of gold to stuff into [one’s] pocket first.” JM
The album showcases “all of Wonder’s most endearing characteristics – intricate and inventive arrangements, the sheer joy of music-making – and all of his most aggravating (mawkishness, a less-than-industrious approach to his lyrics) in one package.” EK “Stevie seems to be vacillating between pure genius and only-slightly-inspired mediocrity – sometimes within the same song.” JM
Always on the cutting edge of modern recording technology, the album is also a tour de force of studio wizardry, yet it’s also a deeply personal and humane work. The album deftly blends the social commentary of his recent work with an exuberance harking back to his earliest records. It “touched on nearly every issue under the sun, and did it all with ambitious (even for him), wide-ranging arrangements and some of the best performances of Wonder’s career.” AMG
It also resonates with a renewed spiritual dimension which lends the music even greater impact. Taken as a whole, the album tells his life story. “The bumping poem to his childhood, I Wish,” AMG is “one of the most joyous of Stevie’s singles…[which is] really saying something.” EK
Isn’t She Lovely is a “lovely celebration of the love for a newborn child,” AMG although it also shows the problems of a double album, with “three minutes of baby noise.” AMG One can “argue what can get cut to make a lean, mean single album. Songs in the Key of Life could almost be gotten down to fighting weight just by cutting tracks off when they start to drag.” AMG “It’s like one of those giant novelty sundaes that’s free if you can finish it in one sitting. Delicious, but in the end a bit much.” EK How about “the two-part, smooth-and-rough Ordinary Pain” AMG where “the second half…sounds like a completely different song?” EK
It might be necessary to try “skipping by the schmaltzy, whip-creamed tracks and focusing on the funk and jazz fusion-driven scoops of goodness.” JM However, there are long tracks which hold up. As “builds perfectly over the course of its seven minutes, thanks in large part to one of the most memorable choruses Stevie Wonder ever wrote (which is seriously freakin’ saying something).” EK It “could have/should have been the ‘Hey Jude’ of the 1970s.” EK
Other highlights are “the torrid fusion jam Contusion” AMG and Sir Duke, “a big, brassy hit tribute to the recently departed Duke Ellington.” AMG It ”is not only a delight, but it also something of a statement of purpose for Wonder. It’s telling that he name-checks Basie, Miller, Armstrong, Ellington, and Fitzgerald over, say, Mingus or Miles.” EK
While not organized as such, Songs in the Key of Life “contains nearly a full album on love and relationships, along with another full album on issues social and spiritual. Fans of the love album Talking Book can marvel that he sets the bar even higher here, with brilliant material like the tenderly cathartic and gloriously redemptive Joy Inside My Tears, …the bitterly ironic All Day Sucker, or another classic heartbreaker, Summer Soft.” AMG
“Those inclined toward Stevie Wonder the social-issues artist had quite a few songs to focus on as well: Black Man was a Bicentennial school lesson on remembering the vastly different people who helped build America.” AMG This “eight-minute tour of Stevie’s prowess as a musician and a lyricist” JM has been called “the apex of the album,” JM but can also be an example of excess. It “starts out great – positive message, bubbling funk, nice flourishes throughout. But as those teachers go on hectoring those poor students (which, by the way, flies in the face of all known pedagogical theories), [one] can’t help wishing they would just knock it off already.” EK
“Pastime Paradise examined the plight of those who live in the past and have little hope for the future.” AMG It became the basis for Coolio’s smash rip hit, “Gangsta’s Paradise,” nearly two decades later. Village Ghetto Land is “a fierce exposé of ghetto neglect set to a satirical baroque synthesizer” AMG while “Saturn found Stevie questioning his kinship with the rest of humanity and amusingly imagining paradise as a residency on a distant planet.” AMG
“If all this sounds overwhelming, it is; Stevie Wonder had talent to spare during the mid-‘70s, and instead of letting the reserve trickle out during the rest of the decade, he let it all go with one massive burst. (His only subsequent record of the ‘70s was the similarly gargantuan but largely instrumental soundtrack Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants).” AMG
“Songs in the Key of Life was a powerhouse – a rare moment when a master was faced with a new level of pressure, and responded by taking his game to new heights.” TL
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First posted 6/20/2008; last updated 8/3/2021.