A Time To Love - Press Releases
London Evening Standard
A Wonderful Return
April 01, 2005
Stevie Wonder was never simply a musician, he was also an activist and innovator. But then he disappeared. Now an exclusive listen to his first album in 10 years reveals a man returned to the peak of his powers.
There has never been anyone like Stevie Wonder. Blind from a few hours after his birth when excess oxygen was mistakenly pumped into his incubator, he transcended his disability to become the first black superstar. But 10 years ago he disappeared from the charts and since then it is as if he had fallen off
the planet. Until now.
A terrific new single, So What the Fuss, will next month re-ignite the world's interest in Stevie Wonder. It heralds a sparkling new album, A Time 2 Love, of which I have had the very first taste. His return serves as a sorely needed reminder that Wonder was not only a founding father of popular music, whose first single appeared two months before The Beatles' Love Me Do, but that he was also among the pivotal cultural figures of the 20th century.
While sounding utterly contemporary, the new album is also a return to Wonder's musical heyday. The single features an electro-synth introduction which oozes into superfunk guitar played by Prince. It works as a finger-clicking call to arms for those who merely wish to dance. Yet - as Wonder at his best always did - it moves the head as well as the body, being a finger-pointing wake-up call for the racists and for the slack-jawed unprepared to take responsibility for their lives. It is four minutes and 13 seconds of classic Stevie Wonder: articulate, socially literate, utopian but unsentimental and inhumanly funky.
Wonder always saw the bigger picture. He wrote monumental songs which espoused social responsibility and community rather than agitation. But Wonder also changed the way popular music was made.
After negotiating a contract which gave him complete creative control over his work, he lived his albums. He wrote them; he sang them; he arranged them; he produced them and he played almost every single instrument on nearly all of them, although he did allow Michael Jackson to sing backing vocals on All I
Do in 1979. The blind kid whose first album was entitled 12 Year Old Genius, released when he was only 13, had evolved into simply a genius.
While So What the Fuss reclaims Wonder's territory, other tracks on A Time 2 Love reinforce the notion that this is a comeback to be celebrated. In addition to the soul, the danceability and the social concern, Wonder was never afraid to pen straightforward love songs - You Are the Sunshine of My Life, My Cherie Amour or For Once in My Life. And after half a century he still has love songs to spare.
On the new album, songs such as From the Bottom of My Heart, How Will I Know and True Love showcase a master of musical seduction still in his pomp. The spry Positivity with its whiplash, tongue-twisting vocals is as uplifting as its title; on it, squaring a family circle, he duets with his daughter Aisha, who, 29 years ago, was the subject of Isn't She Lovely?
Musically, Wonder was heroically brave from the first. He shocked the Luddite purists when they first heard 1972's Music of My Mind as he introduced synthesisers into soul music. His quest to push the boundaries remains unfinished and A Time 2 Love's If Your Love Cannot Be Moved features an orchestra, Doug E Fresh on beat-box, a Nigerian talking-drum player and the West Los Angeles Choir - the same troupe who graced Pastime Paradise in 1976.
But he was more than just an astonishingly gifted artist; Wonder had a political influence that resonated through the decades, despite his fervent support of John Kerry's ill-fated presidential campaign. Without his campaigning zeal, without the marches he led on Washington and without his glorious song Happy Birthday, Americans would not celebrate Dr Martin Luther King Jnr Day every third Monday in January. As ex-President Bill Clinton noted: 'In so many ways, Wonder has helped to compose the remaining passages of Dr King's unfinished legacy.'
More striking than his renaissance, therefore, is the fact that his absence was barely noted. In fact, scandalously, he had been marginalised for some time. He deserved better. Even the ever-patchy Marvin Gaye, who nobody claimed was a genius and who contributed far less on every level, is better valued. And Gaye was blind only to his own shortcomings.
Slowly, though, Wonder's air of invincibility began to lift. In 1984, I Just Called to Say I Love You was his first transatlantic No 1, his only Oscar winner and remains his most popular song; it was shamefully panned as pap. Several embarrassing duets followed.
By Conversation Peace, in 1995, Stevie Wonder seemed tired of recording and the public seemed tired of Stevie Wonder. We had, after all, been having a long and passionate affair. In 1999, when he most recently played Wembley Arena, so few people chose to attend that the rear half of the hall sadly had to be curtained off.
Punctuated by occasional soundtrack appearances and collaborations, his 10-year moratorium has not wholly been a holiday. Even so, it was perturbing to hear about this normally rational man claiming to fellow worshippers at a Detroit church, in 1999, that he was to undergo an experimental operation which would enable him to see. He's still blind.
Finally, Wonder is back in the midst of a creative maelstrom. For those of us who have pined for him over the past decade, that is all we could have asked for. Assuming he elects not to carry out a threat of 30 years' standing and emigrate to Ghana after his forthcoming tour (tentatively scheduled to reach
Britain in the autumn), Wonder promises a jazz album, a gospel album and a musical. For now, though, A Time 2 Love is a joy to hear.