STEVIE WONDER -- "Journey Though the Secret Life of Plants." Tamla-Motown (Ti3-37-1C2).

It's been three years since we last heard from Stevie Wonder, and in that time a lot of water has passed under the bridge. Major albums by Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones have been released, and disco has shown unexpected strength. Record prices have soared to $8.98, (and dropped, and soared) and nervous executives are crossing their fingers in hopes that a few stellar releases will pull the industry out of its slump.

In the midst of their uncertainty, Stevie Wonder arrives with "Yourney Through the Secret Life of Plants," a serene and elegant concept album. Frankly, it would come as no surprise if, with "Journey," Wonder is able to generate sufficient excitement to give the industry, and Motown in particular, a needed inspirational and financial boost.

Inspiration has been Wonder's stock-in-trade for nigh onto 18 years. He established himself as a master of the songs of innocence and experience at age 11, and, incredibly, hasn't faltered. His last three albums were Grammy winners, and his last five releases have been gold. Even his critics, of which there are few, are able to muster only the most transparent of complaints.

Theis leaves the former Steveland Morris in the ambiguous position of always being his own hardest act to follow. After the triumph of "Fulfillingness' First Finale," there was a 2 1/2-year silence before the release of "Songs in the Key of Life."

Such delays tend to make record companies antsy, because their profits depend on a constant flow of product. In the case of Stevie Wonder, however, Motown has no choice but to wait and hope for the best, and so far they haven't been disappointed.

As Wonder vision grew more spiritual and universal, his projects became more ambitous and time-consuming. Hence the three-year wait for "Journey," an idea that germinated in the mind of film producer Michael Braun after he read The Secret Life of Plants, the 1973 best-seller by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird.

Braun approached Wonder about doing one song, and the idea grew like a Virginia creeper to include the entire soundtrack. Even after the test-showing of the film last December, Wonder insisted on turning the soundtrack into a suitable act to follow "Songs in the Key of Life."

"Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants" is a mixed bag of all Wonder's talents and concerns. With braille writing on the cover, scented flowers, vaguely Oriental artwork and Wonder's soothing, evocative music, the album is literally a sensuous delight.

Most of all, though, "Journey" is a serendipitous symphony that sprang from Wonder's creative genius. As writer, composer and principal musican, Wonder controls all elements of the work, which gives the album a personal flavor. The instrumentals are reflective, almost dreamlike; the vocals have a gentle, moral tone; and the sentiment is one of pantheistic celebration.

The obvious soundtrack elements are the weakest links in the work. "Earth's Creation," "The First Garden," and Voyage to India, the three instrumentals that open side one, sound as though they could have come from the Bhagavad-Gita and, as such, seem strangely out of sync with the rest of the album. Perphaps in context of the film they can be better appreciated.

It is the "vegetable" love songs that carry the album, for they remind us most of such earlier hits as "All in Love Is Fair" and "You Are the Sunshine of My Life." There is, for example, an unpretentious innocence in such lines, from "Send One Your Love," as: Send her your love With a dozen roses Make sure that she knows it With a flower from your heart.

(Bet the FTD Florists would like to get ahold of that verse.)

Similarly, there's a curious personification of the plant world in "Outside My Window" that is evocative of Through the Looking glass: My love lives outside my window Clouds burst to give water So her love can grow, oh My love smiles to me each morning Says she will never leave me and I know it's so.

One has to admire the sheer seamless complexity of "Journey," as well. Wonder is evidently proud of his achievement. The liner notes tell us that the recording was done at six studios; that computers were required to coordinate and program the synthesizers; that the Dallas-Fort Worth air traffic controllers had a hand in coordinating the sound effects, as did the Los Angeles Zoo staff; and that such exotic instruments as djebe drums, syndrums, zyla box drums and African ago-go bells were required to produce "A Seed's a Star and Tree Medley."

Too bad that a good part of this is much ado about relative nothing; Wonder does best when he's alone with his Yamaha synthesizer and his mellifluous vocal chords.

And it's Wonder's voice that is his true instrument, because it tells us how he's grown out of the shuckin' and jivin' sound of "Fingertips," his 1962 hit. His inflection has matured and deepened a thousandfold to give us the tough and vulnerable sound we know from "livin' in the City," and the reflective, blues-tinged sound of "My Cherie Amoru." We can tell both how he has aged and how young he still is at 29, just by the way he sings on "Journey."

On "Power Flower," the best cut on "Journey," Wonder's talents, vocal and lyrical, are brought together in a composer's final statement of intent and purpose: it's not magic, it's not madness Just the elements I style And I guarantee faithfully I will never go Until all is said and done In a twinkling I'll be gone Well excuse me I have so much more to do.

If Wonder holds ture to form, then, we should look for him in another three years. CAPTION:

Illustration, no caption, By Allen Carroll.