THE ALBUM -- Stevie Wonder's Hotter Than July," Tamla T 373.; THE SHOW -- Wednesday at 8 at Dar Constitution Hall.
It's too wild a fantasy, of course, but if they made Stevie Wonder Secretary of State, there'd be fewer sleepless nights all around. No one presently under consideration has demonstrated Wonder's ability to cross barriers of race, age, sex, religion and politics and leave all parties smiling.
"Hotter Than July," his least album, reinforces his self-styled diplomacy, in both the social and the personal arenas. From "Rocket Love" to "Cash in Your Face" to "Happy Birthday," he cloaks minor confrontations and major injustices in music that would set the grimmest cynic humming.
"Cash in Your Face" presents a young black couple being turned away by a landlord who casts about for "reasons" they can't be tenants in his building, until the protagonist confronts him with the bottom line in the chorus: You might have the cash But you cannot cash in your face We don't want your kind living in here Though that's about as strident as the lyrics get, the handclaps that angrily whip their way through the chorus tell the story.
"Happy Birthday" is another case of examining a negative situation by way of a positive pop hook. Here, Wonder expresses disappointment in the failure of government to make Martin Luther King's birthday a national holiday. The chorus is so buoyant and danceable that one can't fail to miss the irony in the bridge: "Why has there never been a holiday / That peace is celebrated / All throughout the world?"
The music throughout "Hotter Than Judy" is as accessible and finely crafted as any Wonder has ever penned, although the production is not up to par. Some may be disappointed that it's not a continuation of the musical experimentation found in "Songs in the Key of Life" and "The Secret Life of Plants," and certainly there is formula involved here.
But formula need not be a dirty word. There are certain elements to be expected on any Stevie Wonder LP: long choruses heavy on call-and-response, lyrics less intent on grammar than on gist, fade-outs in lieu of resolution, modulation where an extra verse might go and almost imperceptible pauses between tracks.
These are the twists and turns that make up Wonder's musical signature, but he's also capable of adjusting his style to fit within other contexts. "Master Blaster (Jammin')" employs several of the above mentioned tactics. It's also set against a feathery bluebeat that gains impact with each reference to the growing influence of Third World sensibilities.
Wonder hears the music of Bob Marley blaring from radios in the park and stops to use about how improbable this once seemed: I bet nobody ever told you That you would be jammin' until the break of down You would be jammin' and jammin' and jammin' jam on Wonder poses the suggestion that regage, and sugsequently Rastafarianism, constitute a positive force, and expresses the conviction that such a power can serve as a means of unity.
This does not come across as mere knee-jerk ingratiation to someone else's religion and music. In the second chorus, the outer voices sing a response that causes the words "jammin'" and "dawn" to collide, so that the result sounds a great deal like "master blaster Jah -men."
This album could just as easily have been titled "Fulfillingness' Second Finale," since it's largely a return to the optimistic simplicity and musical straight-forwardness that preceded "Songs in the Key of Life." But whether Wonder is expermenting or sticking to more standard fare, his pop is as powerful as his certainly of mankind's ability to right its own wrongs.
As he puts it on "Master Blaster": "When you're moving in the positive Your destination is the brightest star.