2005, Rasputin Manifesto
When you hear that harmonica, with all its child-like joy, you know you're hearing Stevie Wonder. Nobody else plays it the way he does.
It's why artists like Cyndi Lauper, Sting and N*Sync, among others, have called upon him to grace their recordings. For that, it's perhaps the one most recognizable sound telling us that he has indeed been kicking around in the ten years since his last studio album, 1995's so-so Conversation Peace.
But now, that sound has finally returned to where it sounds best - on a Stevie Wonder album. A Time 2 Love was finally released, after a very long wait, on October 18, following a pre-release exclusive on iTunes late in September.
We had been hearing "So What The Fuss" as early as May, and by the sounds of that prime slice of funk, Stevie had reclaimed some inspiration he was missing last time around. It seemed unthinkable that he'd write and record something as funky and irresistible as "Superstition" or "Boogie On Reggae Woman" again, without it sounding like a throwback. Yet there it was. With Prince on guitar, no less! Those backing vocals, courtesy of En Vogue, could be considered a Wonderlove throwback, but that's hardly reason to complain. Stevie was back with the release of "Fuss" to radio.
And now, the full album is here. Was it worth the wait? You bet.
Stevie is in superb voice throughout, sounding young and vibrant, and responding to a world situation that can best be described by recalling an old Stevie song title from almost thirty years ago: "Love's In Need Of Love Today." He does get serious with his message of making a difference and staying positive, but for most of the record he's giving us real love songs, mostly of the 'fine art' type.
He breezes through some genuinely affecting cocktail jazz on "True Love" and "How Will I Know," the latter a duet with his daughter Aisha Morris. Yes, this is the same Aisha of whom Stevie sang on "Isn't She Lovely" way back when. She's all grown up now, and the blend she achieves with her father is the kind only family can do.
But some of the funk mingles with the lovey dovey too, as on the lusty-but-never-dirty "My Love Is On Fire," and the harmonica-punctuated "Tell Your Heart I Love You."
And if even if "From The Bottom Of My Heart" borrows its sentimentality and its title from the lyrics of the much maligned "I Just Called To Say I Love You," it more than makes up for it with a richer melody. And again, that harmonica puts it over the top.
And then there's the stunning "Moon Blue" and the Songs In The Key Of Life-worthy "Can't Imagine Love Without You" but then there's also the 'message' songs. The backbone of the record. The strong stem on which the pretty love flowers hang. They put it all into context.
From track one, Stevie is issuing us a challenge: to get up, get into it and get involved, to steal a quote from James Brown. "You can't shout out peace and then vanish in the crowd," he tells would-be activists. "You can't find the serum and not cure the sick" - that's right, drug companies. "You can't free the slaves to enslave them differently" - an especially timely message in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. All this is sung to a dramatically foreboding track, underscoring the fact that neither Stevie nor featured vocalist Kim Burrell are fooling around.
"Positivity" finds Stevie invoking his friend Minnie Riperton to convey not just the pleasure, but the utility of viewing the glass half-full. He draws a connection between pessimism and the attitude that you "can't do nothin' about" what bothers you - or those around you. And the way he crams a seemingly impossible amount of syllables into so short a space on this bouncy tune just adds to its charms.
The title track, a duet with india.arie, ranks among the most spiritually uplifting and empowering songs in Stevie's catalog. He revisits the lyrical theme of Chicago's "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?" and expands upon it to create a rallying cry. "We have time to conquer nations / Time for oil excavation / Hatred, violence and terrorism /. When will there be a time to love?" It's a question we all must answer, for if we don't, "we will pay the consequences." Amen.
And then there's the aforementioned "So What The Fuss." Or so what the FUSS. Place that emphasis. Dig Prince's funky guitar. If this tune don't get you smilin' and movin', shae shankity shame on you!
Yes, this is the
next great Stevie Wonder album we've been waiting for. A Time 2 Love is
an early 21st century classic, whether today's mass media machine will
acknowledge it as such or not. And since it's highly likely that it won't
embrace this record as it would an album from someone much younger, you'll
have to do the job of playing and replaying these songs on your stereo,
your iPod, your PC, or whatever your chosen music delivery device is.
And once they're burned into your consciousness, be prepared to live with
them for a very long time. They won't be going anywhere.