“Sometimes I write as many as 50 songs a month down in my basement at home,” Stevie Wonder told an interviewer in 1969 when he was 18 and still living with his mother in Detroit. Later that year, she helped him out when he was struggling to find a lyric to go with a melody. “You should write . . . ‘Ooh baby, I'm yours,’” she suggested. “‘I'm signed, sealed, delivered, I'm yours’.” He took her up on the idea.
Wonder used to have a profusion of music at his fingertips (the conjuror’s body part cited in the title of his first hit single). But it has dried up in later age. His last album, A Time 2 Love, came out in 2005. Two new albums were announced for 2014, but neither materialised. Wonder went on to release only one song during the last decade, the funky gospel frippery “Faith”, written for the animated film Sing.
Perhaps the experience of turning 70 earlier this year has made a difference, or maybe it’s the kidney transplant he had last year — but the 2020s are already proving a lot more productive. At a press conference this week, Wonder announced the release of two songs. He also revealed that he had left Motown Records, his label since he was a child star in the early 1960s. His new music is being released on his own label, So What the Fuss Records.
“Where Is Our Love Song” has its origins in the cascade of songs that he produced in the basement of his Detroit family home as a young man: he began writing it when he was 18. It’s a gospel-pop ballad in the free-flowing style that Wonder created for himself as he moved away from Motown’s rigid musical formulas in the 1970s. The lyrics hold out the precarious promise of a better tomorrow (“Oh how we need those words of hope”) set against a suffering present (“Not just on this urban bloodstained street/But in every war-torn country”). Wonder’s voice is thicker than it used to be but still expressive, keening melodiously at the heart of deftly arranged melodies. Guitarist Gary Clark Jr contributes a well-judged classic-rock refrain.
“Can’t Put It in the Hands of Fate” ups the tempo. Featuring contributions from pan-generational rappers Cordae, Rapsody, Chika and Busta Rhymes, it’s an agitpop number about Black Lives Matter. Percussion and harmonica add Wonder’s signature to a straightforward old-school hip-hop beat. The singer addresses himself to a white antagonist (“You say you’re sick and tired of us protesting”). The confrontational edge gives a welcome sharpness to Wonder’s performance: the chintzy sentimentality that entered his work in middle-age is absent. The unparalleled hot streak of his younger days can never be recaptured — but this is a promising return to action by one of the greats.
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