Happy 45th Anniversary to Stevie Wonder’s sixteenth studio album Innervisions, originally released August 3, 1973.
Okay, what were you doing with your life when you were 23? Most of us were still trying to figure out what our path in life was going to be. In 1973, 23-year-old Stevland Hardaway Morris, better known as Stevie Wonder, had already recorded fifteen studio albums, written hit songs for other artists like Smokey Robinson & the Miracles (“Tears of a Clown”) and The Spinners (“It’s a Shame”), and established himself as one of his generation’s most popular artists. In that same year, Wonder released Innervisions, the first in the holy trinity of his discography, with Fulfillingness’ First Finale and Songs in the Key of Life rounding it out.
To better understand the huge significance of Innervisions, let’s go back a couple of years to 1970. Wonder had a desire to have more autonomy in the studio. He wanted to comment on the social issues of the day though his music, which Motown chief Berry Gordy had no stomach for. In Gordy’s eyes, it was bad enough that he had the same, albeit on a more intense level, issue with Marvin Gaye. Now, he had to deal with Wonder’s demands.
Wisely, Wonder let his contract with Motown expire on his 21st birthday, giving him the freedom to record what he wanted, plus he owned the publishing rights to his music. With no record label, Wonder recorded two albums, Music of My Mind and Talking Book. In 1972, Motown signed Wonder to a contract that gave him a higher royalty rate and the artistic freedom that he had fought so hard for. The label also released the two aforementioned albums, which put Wonder in an entirely different atmosphere. In the same year he toured with the Rolling Stones, which expanded his growing audience even further.
With two classic albums and a successful tour in his rearview mirror, Wonder spent the beginning of 1973 recording Innervisions. As great as Music of My Mind and Talking Book are, Innervisions is where Wonder made a quantum leap into that rarified creative air that only a handful of artists can claim to have captured. It’s a smart and beautiful observation of the world that existed in 1973. Walter Cronkite gave us the news on television and Wonder put the truth on wax. It’s interesting how a blind man saw the world so much more clearly than many did with the gift of eyesight.
Three days after the release of the album, Wonder was involved in a serious car accident. While driving from a concert in Greenville, South Carolina, Wonder was asleep on the front passenger side. His vehicle collided with a truck carrying logs, and one of the logs smashed through the windshield, hitting Wonder in the forehead. Wonder was in a coma for four days. When he awoke from his coma, Wonder began a slow recovery process that would last well over a year.
His concert tour was canceled, but it gave him time to reflect. Even though the album was recorded and released before the accident, many erroneously think that the spiritual nature of the album’s material is the result of the accident. Wonder once remarked, “I would like to believe in reincarnation. I would like to believe that there is another life. I think that sometimes your consciousness can happen on this earth a second time around. For me, I wrote ‘Higher Ground’ even before the accident. But something must have been telling me that something was going to happen to make me aware of a lot of things and to get myself together. This is like my second chance for life, to do something or to do more, and to value the fact that I am alive.”
On seven of the nine tracks, Wonder plays all of the instruments, including the opening track “Too High,” a cautionary tale about drug abuse cleverly disguised by the bouncy arrangement. “Visions” slows it down a bit but leads us into “Living for the City.” Wonder paints a stark, but accurate picture of a young black man who faces systemic racism every day of his life. He leaves his home in Mississippi to venture to New York, only to get framed for a crime for which he is arrested and eventually convicted. It’s one of those songs that stays with you and never leaves. 45 years later and this scenario is still being played out in way too many places in this country. “Higher Ground” is a protest song and call-to-arms anthem that simply has no rival.
“Powers keep on lying / While your people keep on dying / World keep on turning / Because it won't be too long”
“I'm so darn glad he let me try it again / Because my last time on earth I lived a whole world of sin / I’m so glad that I know more than I knew then / Going to keep on trying / Until I reach my highest ground”
One of the more interesting sequences on the album is “All In Love Is Fair” and “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing.” The former was inspired by Stevie’s divorce from his wife, singer-songwriter Syreeta Wright, and touches on the promises and hopes in a relationship that sadly don’t come to fruition. It’s a sullen yet respectful meditation on a relationship that did not pan out as expected.
“All is fair in love/ Love's a crazy game / Two people vow to stay / In love as one they say / But all is changed with time / The future none can see / The road you leave behind / Ahead lies mystery”
We go from “All in Love Is Fair” to “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing,” Latin soul-tinged number that is as infectious today as it was when it was first released. It was a positive song that was sorely needed back in 1973. The album closes with a song that may have inspired by none other than Richard Nixon. “He’s Misstra Know-It-All” is a song about a two-bit con man who simply cannot be trusted.
“Take my word / Please beware / Of a man that just don't give a care, no / He's Misstra Know-It-All”
The sign of a great song is one that translates well across different generations. I play this song today and I can’t help but think about where we are now in the summer of 2018. Wonder’s genius lies in his ability to understand the human condition and put it into a song.
Innervisions was a rarity for a Motown record of its era in that it wasn’t a couple of hit singles, B-sides and useless filler. It was a reflection of life interpreted through the genius of Stevie Wonder, whose best work was yet to come. We tend to overuse the word spiritual or spirituality. So much so that one could argue that the words are almost meaningless. As hard as I’ve tried, I’m struggling to call Innervisions anything else but a 9-track spiritual journey that doesn’t preach, but instead, invites the listener to just take it all in and enjoy.