Salt In The Sugar Bowl

It took me a long while to get to Stevie Wonder.  When I was growing up everything I ever heard of his in the charts was just so lightweight and schmaltzy* and his earlier Motown stuff just wasn’t my thing.  In fact I didn’t even remotely consider him until I learned that the, ‘Get in that cell, nigger!’ line sampled at the beginning of my fave Public Enemy track came from him and then I discovered ‘Superstition’ and bought Talking Book and a couple of others from his classic period.

Just a quick pause for thought, Stevie Wonder was 22 years old when Talking Book was released.  It was his 15th album.

Stevie Wonder Talking Book 01 (2)

Anyhow, right from the off Talking Book hits me up with contradictory doo-dahs.  I love that incredibly funky sound of the Fender Rhodes on ‘You Are The Sunshine Of My Life’ and the rich warmth of the production BUT it all sounds a bit, well, bossa nova easy listening to me – I hear it and I see Hollywood montage shots of couples driving along coast roads and sipping Mai Tais at a beachfront bar.  Hey, I do understand that he practically invented all this but I always skip straight to track 2.

… and who wouldn’t when that second track is as blindingly excellent as ‘Maybe Your Baby’, just short of 7 minutes of absolute genius ripped up towards the end by Ray Parker Jr’s guitaring^.  As a Welshman I am inherently funky and this ticks all my boxes.  The Moog bass and Hohner Clavinet sound is nothing short of incredible, apparently they used to multi-multi track it to build up to that sound.  What I also particularly dig is all Wonder’s backing vocals where he appears to have altered the pitch and tone of his voice, I was quite surprised to read that there were no female backing singers on this one; a diminutive purple man in Minneapolis was surely making notes.  Best of all for me though is the gnawing doubt and vulnerability that lurks beneath the strut here, I do like a touch of bitters in my glass:

I’m feelin’ down and some kind of lonely,
Cause’ my baby done left me here,
Heart’s blazing like a five alarm fire
And I don’t even give a care

I feel like the world is turnin’ on me,
My dreams turnin’ to ashes right in front of my face,
And I’m gettin’ kind of worried,
And I feel so out of place,

Maybe your baby done made some other plans,
Maybe your baby done made some other plans

Stevie Wonder Talking Book 05

Again at the risk of having to go into hiding with my family to escape the vengeful Wonder Massive I’m afraid the next couple of tracks really don’t jiggle my jigglys, or at least not until we reach side closer ‘You’ve Got It Bad Girl’.  There’s something delightfully wrong and even cleverly off-key in places here, the melody plays with you never quite going where you think it should, a semitone or so off.  I have absolutely no idea at all what a T.O.N.T.O synthesizer is (kemo sabe) but this one gets tinkled to great effect here.

But the big shot on Talking Book for me will always be ‘Superstitious’, a song which just hits the 1537 description of perfection – there’s absolutely nothing you could add, or takeaway from ‘Superstition’ to make it any better at all.  I simply can’t sit still with this song playing, not at all – surely no-one can? best of all, the rhythm is so idiosyncratic and strong that it dictates the way you dance and roll to it too.  Proof? just try not to wiggle your shoulders when that horn section cuts in.  Maybe it’s just my Welsh blood coming to the boil (yet) again.  I was rather intrigued to learn that Jeff beck had more than a slight hand in the genesis of the track too, although he doesn’t play on the Talking Book version, or get any writing credit at all^^.

Stevie Wonder Talking Book 06 (2)

One of the most intriguing tracks is ‘Big Brother’ where, from what I can tell, Stevie Wonder invents the Godawful reality TV show of the same name twenty years before it hit our screens.  True story.  Witness: ‘Your name is big brother / You say that you’re watching me on the tele’.  He does go a bit over the top: ‘You’ve killed all our leaders / I don’t even have to do nothin’ to you / You’ll cause your own country to fall’, I don’t remember that in the programme Stevie!  It is almost as though Mr Wonder sees the TV bosses as running some kind of nationwide dystopia, remotely controlling the whole populace.  Hmm, Kinda reminds me of a book I read once … you know, the one with Lenny Kravitz in … The Hunger Games, that’s it.  It’s a really good change of pace, a bit of salt in the sugar bowl, I know I’m a hopeless case, brim-full of adolescent rage, but I like songs with an edge of anger to them, especially when sung as sweetly as this.

Because I can't find my Sodding copy of 1984!
Because I can’t find my sodding copy of 1984!

Then just to completely contradict myself, because that’s the kinda guy I am, I do really rather like the LP closer because it’s a bit smooch and heartfelt, ‘I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)’.  It manages to stay very contemporary sounding, no mean feat after 43 years – hell, I’m the same age and my production sounds very dated these days.

Stevie Wonder Talking Book 04

Blasphemous it may be but I do have to say, still, that I can’t give all my love to Stevie.  There are times that I can just stop swimming against the current and happily let myself get washed downstream on his funky muse, but I do occasionally still founder on the rocks of his sentimentality.  Actually, I suspect that its simply the case that I’m just a soulless rockboy spending my time looking for cheap thrills and Mr Wonder reminds me of decades of proper grown-up emotion and feeling that I’ve walled up inside myself to die.  Maybe.  Nobody ever made a Hohner Clavinet sound that good again though.

I've long thought that the quiet dignity of the LP cover would be enhanced by a Lego Godzilla exploding from his stomach.
I’ve long thought that the quiet dignity of the LP cover would be enhanced by a Lego Godzilla exploding from Stevie Wonder’s stomach.

577 Down.


*’Ebony & Ivory’ I’m calling you out here!**

**ok, I know he didn’t write it, but bear with me, I believe in guilt by association.

^yup, that one.

^^although he does get to spank his plank on the gloopy ‘Looking For Another Pure Love’.

32 thoughts on “Salt In The Sugar Bowl

  1. 15 albums by age 22, what have I been doing with my life?!
    Enjoyed this (the review and the album). I might still give the nod to Innervisions as my favourite Stevie, thanks in large part to Living for the City, as close to a ‘can’t be made any more perfect’ track that I’ve heard.

      1. I am thinking of doing a post about the most common records found at every thift store. Herb Alpert has to be on this list. Although I did buy the Whipped Cream and Other Delights album just for the front cover.

  2. Delightful review (with which I’m in pretty much total agreement. Wouldn’t be so delightful otherwise).

    OK, so now you’re in my territory, Mr!
    TONTO = “The Original New Timbral Orchestra” and was a bespoke synthesiser created by a US/UK duo who called themselves Tonto’s Expanding Head Band. They produced a couple of slightly disappointing albums but their main fame is their contribution to the string of 4 Stevie Wonder albums that includes Talking Book. So now you know.

    And doesn’t Stevie spank a Clavinet like no-one else?!

      1. Own one – a CD burn 🙁 and never felt compelled to acquire the other. A bit like Silver Apples – important in the history of electronic instruments but not especially precious musically.

      2. Ah, now that is a very interesting album. One I’ve been thinking of writing about. David Vorhaus’s effort is very much a “Psych into Prog” LP where the disturbing mass side contrasts markedly with the more 60s pop-psych side. But uneasy listening, that’s for sure!

      3. I could try putting together a richly interpretive modern dance routine to it though, I envisage lots of waving my arms around a la Kate Bush.

  3. Enjoyed this one. Similar view to my own on this Stevie ‘classic’, it seems. Aside from a couple of tracks there’s just not enough in this to hold my interest. Think I prefer the earlier ‘little Stevie’ stuff. That’s all sorts of high energy business.

  4. I heard this one ages ago, and am ashamed to admit I only have a Stevie’s Hits set here, at the moment. Your post has reminded me that that is a situation that must be rectified!

    Also, this: “As a Welshman I am inherently funky and this ticks all my boxes. ” Work it baby, work it YEAH!

  5. Did not know of the R.P Jr. role here. On the other hand, who was ya gonna call back then, right? …

    Share what I read as your absolute objective-brain respect and awe for Mr. Wonder, but inability to fully sign on with the more subjective spongy parts of your being. I hold on dearly to those few Stevie songs that have deeply-rooted themselves in me — “Superstition” here and “You Haven’t Done Nothin” from Fulfillingness’ First Finale (1974) especially — but I don’t find myself moved to expand further. Character flaw probably …

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