Stevie Wonder's Midlife Classic

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Stevie Wonder's long-promised CD "A Time to Love" finally arrived yesterday, just in Stevie Wonder-time -- meaning when he's ready to let it go. Wonder signed to Motown 43 years ago, when he was 12, and a new deal was sealed when the artist turned 21, but that "delivered" part has always been the trickiest aspect of the relationship.

In the '60s, the boy Wonder cranked out two or three albums a year on the Motown assembly line. And in the '70s, Wonder took control of his production and became one of that decade's towering artists via five landmark albums recorded between 1972 and 1976. "Music of My Mind," "Talking Book," "Innervisions," "Fulfillingness' First Finale" and "Songs in the Key of Life" -- all recorded when Wonder was in his mid-twenties! -- rank with the time-compressed advances and achievements of Bob Dylan, the Beatles and Brian Wilson in the '60s. Like those artists, Wonder has lived in the shadow of his long-ago masterpieces ever since, suffering the unfairest of comparisons -- with himself.

Wonder's last significant album was 1980's "Hotter Than July." Over the next 25 years, there were only three others -- and none in the past decade (excluding best-ofs, live and boxed sets, and a pair of soundtracks). Wonder is a notorious perfectionist willing to tinker endlessly with his creations. 1995's "Conversation Peace" took eight years to complete, and the payoff wasn't what it should have been, artistically or commercially. In the '60s and '70s, he ruled the singles charts, but his last appearance in pop's top 20 was in 1987.

So where does "A Time to Love" fit in? Where does Stevie Wonder fit in at 55?

Wonder's not beholden to current trends, so the new album sounds like classic Stevie: airy romantic ballads and funky, socially conscious anthems; gorgeous, serpentine melodies delivered in a voice that's somewhat deeper and huskier but has lost none of its elegance, elation or elasticity. He's still championing positivity (in fact, the name of a new song), justice and brotherhood, as well as the redemptive power of love, a word that appears in the titles of six of the album's 15 tracks.

Does "A Time to Love" stack up to what Wonder was doing 30 years ago? Of course not, and it's probably harsh to expect it to. Still, pretty good Wonder is better than most of the work offered by his numerous musical progeny, and the comforting familiarity of it all is worth something.

The album opens with "If Your Love Cannot Be Moved," an earnest, rhythmically taut call to action and involvement, built from Doug E. Fresh's human beatbox sounds and traditional percussion over ominous strings and a choir directed by Kirk Franklin. Wonder duets with gospel singer Kim Burrell in a litany of scenarios that invoke social actions and reactions, moral opportunities and failures before coming back to a basic challenge: "Can you say your name/or would you rather stay unknown?"

More than 70 minutes later, "A Time to Love" closes with the nine-minute title track, whose lyrics were written with India.Arie. It's a sincere polemic in which Wonder notes, "At this point in history we have a choice to make: to either walk the path of love or be crippled by our hate."

"Shelter in the Rain," written to honor Wonder's ex-wife Syreeta Wright and his brother Larry Hardaway (both of whom died in recent years), has become an inspirational anthem, and fundraiser, for Hurricane Katrina victims and will have a longer life at memorial tributes, much as Wonder's love songs have provided the soundtrack for countless weddings. There are several new candidates for that job on the album, most notably "Sweetest Somebody I Know," a languid bossa nova powered by Oscar Castro-Nueves's supple acoustic guitar and Wonder's ecstatic vocal and harmonica (though his 4-year-old son Kailand's bursting into the recording session shouting "Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, okay, that's enough!" feels a bit forced -- perhaps Motown sent him).

"Moon Blue," written with actress Akosua Busia, feels like a pop jazz standard in the making. Other sunshiny missives include "True Love," "From the Bottom of My Heart" and "Can't Imagine Love Without You," though all three slip into the trite sentimentality of "I Just Called to Say I Love You."

Wonder's oldest daughter, Aisha Morris, first heard as a cooing and crying baby on 1976's "Isn't She Lovely" -- she was, of course, that song's inspiration -- shares two songs with her father. "How Will I Know" is simplicity itself, an exploration of one of love's most basic questions via entwined voices, Wonder's acoustic piano underscored by brushes and vibes. The sunny, spirited "Positivity" rides an "I Want You Back"-style guitar loop to become one of Wonder's typically ebullient anthems, in which he insists, "I'm not saying that life can't be rough, but you'll never find me giving up."

On the funk side, there's "Please Don't Hurt My Baby," a caustic infidelity fable in which a man and woman "blinded by desire" are racked with guilt and terrified of exposure, with recriminations couched in competing his-and-hers choruses; the slinky "Tell Your Heart I Love You," featuring addictive harmonica and Bonnie Raitt's slide guitar; and supremely catchy "So What the Fuss," built on a sly guitar vamp played by Prince, which castigates those who talk the talk but don't walk the walk in regard to social progress. As always, Stevie Wonder's gonna keep on tryin' till we reach the highest ground.

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