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.

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D’Angelo – Voodoo: Round 44, Nick’s choice

dangelo_voodooI decided to play this whilst we were listening to Frank Ocean at Rob’s house last week; despite my comments about that record, the one R&B full-length that has got me from start to finish (almost), is D’Angelo’s Voodoo from 2000.

I don’t like the myth of the ‘romantic artist’, the idea of musicians or poets or painters being magical individuals blessed with talent; I could talk about why not for ages. But Michael Eugene Archer, AKA D’Angelo, born in Richmond, Virginia in 1974, started playing piano age 4, self-produced first solo album aged 20, masterminded Voodoo age 25, then (seemingly, allegedly) went crazy and disappeared because he objected to being objectified for his abs rather than revered for his music and who hasn’t released an album since and only just started playing live again last year, seems like he might be the real deal. He’s certainly not your everyday common or garden pop star.

Voodoo is a strange beast. I bought it almost as soon as it came out, intrigued by salivating hyperbole emanating from critics who talked about it as being an instant soul/jazz/funk/roots/R&B/whatever classic, who placed it in a lineage with Marvin Gaye and Isaac Hayes and Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder and Prince and Sly & The Family Stone and Funkadelic and Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix – no expectation or pressure there then.

The copious sleevenotes, and even more copious musicological analysis you can find online, explain exactly how much of an influence the likes of Sly, Prince, Jimi, Stevie, and Marvin etc were on D’Angelo during the record’s gestation, but for the most part Voodoo sounds like nothing so much as itself. For a start, it’s a record very much about vibe and groove rather than about tunes – I was expecting melodies like Stevie Wonder’s on first listen and was confused and disappointed when they didn’t emerge. D’Angelo absorbed the musical lessons of his idols, and used what he learnt to create something different. As a result, Voodoo is hard to categorise; I think of it and use it more like a jazz album than a collection of songs qua songs.

Recorded on vintage analogue gear at Hendrix’s Electric Lady studio, musically Voodoo is comprised of languid, behind-the-beat drum patterns (courtesy of ?uestlove) and languorous basslines, which are up front and centre like hip hop beats. Above and behind this there are taut, high-up-the-chest guitar lines and riffs, woozy horns, indolent piano and organs, plus scratching, studio FX and chatter. The instruments were apparently recorded almost entirely live in a room, with barely any overdubs.

There are plenty of overdubs on D’Angelo’s vocals, though, as his voice floats over the top of everything else, harmonising with himself almost impenetrably, lyrics hard to discern but mood pretty easy to ascertain. He sings about sex, faith, and love, admonishes the greedy, prays for this son, the vocal melodies less recognisable as songs than understandable as blissful incantations.

Voodoo is world away from the modern digital R&B it was contemporaneous to. Is it better? Not necessarily – the likes of Aaliyah produced some sublime, heart-stopping music – but it is different. As indulgent as an album can possibly be, it is incredibly long, focussed to the point of myopia, obsessed with intangible notions like authenticity and spirit and soul. I go through periods where I get obsessed with it, with unravelling its secrets (and it does feel like it contains secrets), and then I put it away again and forget about it for a year or three or five. Because how often can you find the time and space and mood to listen to a record like this?

“Untitled (How Does It Feel?)”, the penultimate song and big single (with the abs-featuring video that seemingly ruined D’Angelo’s psyche for a decade), is like the ghost of a Prince ballad, the tune so clearly beautiful but so hard to touch that even as you’re listening to it you feel like you’re remembering it rather than experiencing it. It’s the only song to build to a climax, to feature bona fide hooks and a chorus, but it just stops dead, cutting to silence apros of nothing before it ever reaches the ecstatic plateau it’s been teasing you with for seven minutes. For a long time, the fear was that D’Angelo’s career might have done the same.

Tom Listened: In the past two days I have sat through the whole of The Age of Adz and I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One – gargantuan double albums by Sufjan Stevens and Yo La Tengo respectively. And I have experienced almost exactly the same thing as I did when listening to Voodoo at Nick’s house. The albums begin wonderfully, plateau a little and then my own failings kick in and I just want to move on, listen to something else, change the mood in the room and in my head. Sufjan’s and Yo La Tengo’s albums I know well and I thoroughly enjoy both in smaller doses (in the case of the Age of Adz I know I’m probably not supposed to but, for me, it’s a much more enjoyable album than Illinois). But over the course of 70 minutes plus, I find it hard to sustain interest in an single (double) album.

Voodoo suffered a similar fate – right up to about the 50 minute mark I found this wonderful – vital, sharp and intriguing, I certainly see where Nick is coming from in his categorising Voodoo as jazz as it has that freedom and ability to surprise that the more rigid structures inherent in many forms of more traditional pop music discourage. But, to be honest, I could have lived without the last 15 minutes. Like almost all the double albums I know (and many that I love), to my ears, a bit of judicious trimming would probably have improved the work!

Graham listened: I must admit I settled down to listen to this thinking it would be a fairly testing experience. For around about the same time as Tom mentions, I was incredibly surprised to find myself toe tappin’, boppin’ and noddin’ (my best efforts at R&B slang) along. An effortless and restrained jazzy groove and vibe had me hooked. But after three quarters of an hour or so my attention began to fade. I not sure if I had heard enough, the style became closer to what I was expecting originally or the arrival of a Lebanese takeaway played its part? Still, in the right mood and with a little trimming in places, I would happily listen again.

Rob listened: I’m afraid I failed to sustain any interest in ‘Voodoo’, so Tom and Graham have done extremely well by comparison. I knew a little of the backstory, and have read some of the glowing reviews, and I love spending time with many of the record’s apparent reference points, Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, Prince. After about ten minutes, I could feel the jazz influence coming in and thought the record was going to grow into something as twisting and beguiling as I was hoping for. Instead it seemed just to plod on, one long groove after another. Played beautifully, assembled lovingly, and clearly concealing genuine depths, i’m afraid ‘Voodoo’ left me with two predominant thoughts: ‘I fancy a snooze’ and ‘Where did I last see my copy of ‘Jazzmatazz Vol 1?’