Stevie Wonder – Talking Book (and “Isn’t She Lovely”): Round 74, Nick’s choice

Talking_BookGraham gave us the vaguest theme; this meeting being close to Bonfire Night and a club baby being due very soon indeed, he just said “fire, or birth”. Phoenix were the first thing that came to mind, but, much as I love Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix and Alphabetical I’m not sure I’d have all that much to say or write about them.

The second thing that came to mind, from the ‘birth’ side of the equation, was “Isn’t She Lovely” from Stevie Wonder’s marvellous, but too-long-for-record-club Songs In The Key Of Life. Unless you’ve been on Mars for the last 38 years, you’ll know this song. Unless you’ve sat and listened to the album version, though, you may not have heard the extended version which features the sound of Stevie bathing his infant daughter and her gurgles and burbles and other baby noises. Even without that, “Isn’t She Lovely” is the most disarmingly open and forthright and unconditional love song I think I’ve ever heard, a feat made even more remarkable because it’s by Stevie Wonder, who seems to me like he has more disarmingly open and forthright and unconditional love songs than anyone else ever anyway, without recording an 8-minute gush of love about his daughter. But he did, and it’s amazing, so I played it.

Its parent album being 80+ minutes in length, I decided to go for another of Stevie’s classic 70s records as accompaniment. I only owned two others – Innervisions and Talking Book, and decided to go for the latter, as it’s both marginally less famous and also the one I know least well of the three.

Wikipedia tells me that original pressings of Talking Book featured the title and Stevie’s name in braille, along with the following message: “Here is my music. It is all I have to tell you how I feel. Know that your love keeps my love strong.” If pretty much anyone else had written that on the sleeve of their record I’d mime sticking my fingers down my throat, but somehow Stevie gets away with it. He also gets away with opening the album with “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life”, which is almost as ridiculously disarmingly open and forthright and unconditional as “Isn’t She Lovely”. There’s something about his delivery, his manner, his melodies – hell, his whole approach and being – that just exudes sincerity and goodwill. And he didn’t just keep this up for a couple of songs or a whole album; he’s kept it up for what seems like his entire life.

You’ll know “Superstition”, of course, and even a thousand sub-Olly Murs covers cannot dim its brilliance. You’ll also know “I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)”, but you may not recall just how splendidly cosmic it is. Quite a lot of Talking Book wanders into cosmic territory, actually – loose structures and jazzy vamping define the feel of many of the songs, but Stevie’s ineffable melodic sense stops it ever wondering away from the listener.

I enjoyed going back to Talking Book, for the first time in ages, that I went out and bought Music Of My Mind and Fulfillingness’ First Finale at the weekend, so I’ve now got his complete run of renowned 70s albums. Has any other musician ever been so convincingly full of love and positivity?

Rob listened: No Nick, I’m not sure they have. I love ‘Talking Book’ as unconditionally as Stevie Wonder seems to love the entire human race. Much as I would be happy to send Sister Sledge into space as proof of the majesty possible in pop music, I would put Stevie Wonder at the front of the queue when it came to singing songs of pure, unadulterated love. Most of the music I like I think of as relating to or somehow, weirdly, emerging from my own life, my own circumstances, my own psyche. Stevie Wonder, however, seems to arrive unique and fully formed from another planet, presenting his music and saying, “here, this is my gift to you, humanity. This is what you could be.” Holy shit, the guy should be made King of the Entire World just for writing ‘Sir Duke’, let alone all the other insanely brilliant shit he also created.

So, ‘Talking Book’ I like a lot, although listening tonight it really did strike me just how noodling and free-form much of the record is. ‘You Are The Sunshine Of My Life’ and ‘I Believe’ are incredible bookends for an album which would be a total trasure even if it didn’t feature ‘Superstition’, aka one of the most amazing pieces of music of the last 50 years. As it happens, I prefer ‘Songs In The Key Of Life’ and maybe ‘Music Of My Mind’ (‘Sweet Little Girl’ excepted) but that’s to take nothing away from this quite wonderful record (his 15th! and second of 1972!) from a quite wonderful artist

Tom listened: Curiously, I too thought of bringing Wolfgang Amadeus Pheonix along to Graham’s Fire and/or Birth evening but I too thought, ‘what the hell could I write about it?’

I’m glad I second guessed Nick’s original choice of Stevie Wonder album as I believe he had intended to play Innervisions and I know that record reasonably well. I had, however, never knowingly listened to Talking Book before and I have always been keen to hear it, despite the fact it had nothing to do with fire or birth! Still, you’ve got to let the lad off at the moment as he has a lot on his mind, mainly to do with one of tonight’s themes.

So, what did I make of Talking Book? Well, it’s hard to say at this point. With the exception of the three or four ubiquitous tracks on the record I was surprised at how difficult the ‘album’ tracks were. Pretty much hookless as far as I could tell, Talking Book seemed to epitomise an album that needed to be lived with…I imagine that by the 7th or 8th run through I would be sitting there going ‘this is amazing, how could I not have heard the true genius of this at first’. It’s a process I’ve been through many times over, one that still excites and surprises me, and one that I am still hopelessly ill-equipped to anticipate. But, in as much as they can, my instincts suggest that Talking Book would be another Forever Changes, Berlin or Clear Spot.

Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On: Round 48, Nick’s choice

Marvin Gaye "What's Going On" high res cover artWhen I set us the theme of ‘turning points’ a fortnight or so ago I didn’t have a specific record in mind; or, indeed, a specific interpretation. A ‘turning point’ record could be a fulcrum of an artist’s career, a dramatic change in your personal relationship with music, a shift in the way an entire genre works, or anything else we could gerrymander an explanation for. It seemed like the kind of vague idea that could make for an interesting evening’s listening…

But when I actually started thinking about it I wasn’t feeling inspired. So I threw the idea out on Twitter to see what bounced back; someone mentioned this and a lightbulb went on in my head. It’s the most obvious turning point album there is, on several levels: Marvin’s seizing of creative control from Berry Gordy was an entirely new thing for Motown and for him (though not, quite, for soul music as a whole; Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul pre-dates it by about 18 months); it set the scene for Stevie Wonder’s amazing string of 70s solo albums (as well as quite a few other people); it established the idea that a soul album by a big-name player could be something other than a collection of singles and cover versions; and, for me, it was a seismic marker in my teenage musical development – the first soul album I bought, and a gateway into entire worlds of r&b and jazz that I’d barely been aware of outside of oldies radio beforehand.

As a 16-year-old I was a bit baffled by What’s Going On at first; I’d read a huge amount about it, about how it was legendary and amazing and significant, Ian Brown from The Stone Roses claiming it was the greatest album ever made, how it was soulful and serious, dealing with the Vietnam war and ecological catastrophe and economic meltdown. So I was expecting big things, as you would. Given what I knew about soul music back then, which wasn’t much beyond recognising all those classic Stax and Motown singles, I expected What’s Going On to be a string of undeniably great soul bangers, hit after hit after hit.

But actually, it’s something else entirely; the entire 35 minutes is a single piece, almost, the first side flowing through six songs which are more like segues or sections than discrete units, the second side a sandwich of two amazing grooves and a piece of subtly devout gospel. The opening two numbers, for instance, are essentially the same; the title track and its near-twin are separated by little but their lyrics. “Save The Children” and “God Is Love” are hymn-like calls to God, enough to make an atheist teenager feel hypocritical and uncomfortable just by listening in. “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” and the title track were about the only two I recognised; the rest seemed formless, almost, strings and rhythm section and brass weaving through what seemed like improvisations (and which, I learned over the years, often were).

It took me some time to adjust my expectations and come to understand this record, but it wasn’t a difficult thing to do; not with music this amazing. Nearly 20 years on, I’d definitely claim What’s Going On as one of the greatest records ever made.

Tom Listened: Of course What’s Going On has been on ‘The List Of Albums I really Should Own But Don’t’ for years now and hearing it in full for the first time at Nick’s house has moved it way on up said list. I wouldn’t say I came close to working it out in a solitary listen and just as Nick has suggested in his write-up, it confounded my expectations (much more so than Innervisions which sounded more-or-less exactly as I had imagined it would beforehand) but I have been listening to records for long enough now to be able to tell the difference between discombobulatingly (is that a word?) good and discombobulatingly bad and this most definitely was the former.

A joy to listen to…as are most offerings at Record Club!

Interestingly (well I found it interesting anyway) I just noticed for the first time the lack of question mark in the album’s title.  Always assumed it was there. That changes things!

Rob listened: I too was baffled by ‘What’s Going On’ when I bought it in the mid-90s. It’s still a swirling, beguiling record, never quite what i’m expecting, always hiding something, always giving something different away. It still sounds like an amazing achievement. 40 years after its release I struggle to think of any other albums so compact yet fully-realised, so self-justifying as ‘What’s Going On’.

Graham listened:  Never heard this before and what a far cry from what I expected. Nick doesn’t credit himself enough for simply being a “bit baffled” by this as a 16year old. At my age it had me completely baffled by side 2. Having recently watched Platoon, I was happily groovin’ in the R&R bunker scene vibe as soon as the album began, but was not expecting the complete mixture of social and political commentary/religion/spirituality/jamming/gospel  that followed. Far too much to take in on a single listen.

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