The wait for "In Square Circle," Stevie Wonder's first full-fledged studio album in five years, is neither as rewarding as the similar wait for the much-heralded "Songs in the Key of Life," nor as disappointing as the wait for the much-overlooked "Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants."
Melodically supple and crafted in beautiful detail by its one-man band and singer-songwriter, "In Square Circle" is really much closer to Wonder's mid-'70s masterpieces, "Innervisions" and "Fulfillingness' First Finale." Those two albums, as well as "Songs in the Key of Life," were all best album Grammy winners in the years of their release.
With Wonder in typically fine voice and blessed with his own mesmerizing production, "In Square Circle" (Tamla 6134TLP) sounds great, even if there is often less there than meets the ear. It may not be worthy of a Grammy, but it celebrates in fine fashion Wonder's emergence after half a decade of minimal activity on the recording front.
With the exceptions of the politically incisive, rhythmically exuberant "It's Wrong (Apartheid)" and an unfocused appraisal of moral absolutists titled "Spiritual Walkers," the new album is filled with Wonder's explorations of disparate states of love. It's an area that has inspired some of the 35-year-old veteran's best songs in the past and does so again: at least three new songs -- "Overjoyed," "Whereabouts" and "Never in Your Sun" -- rank with Wonder's best.
"Part-Time Lover," the current single and the album's opener, is certainly catchy but seems like a leftover from the "Woman in Red" sound track. As he does on most of the record, Wonder plays all the rhythm and melody instruments, but rather than multitracking himself vocally, uses pals like Luther Vandross (a bit wasted), Syreeta Wright and Phillip Bailey on a typically hook-dominated chorus. Though Wonder's drumming is sometimes suspect, here it is crisp, punching out its dance floor esthetic while the singer uncovers the irony of double affairs. Wonder could just as well have called this "He Just Called to Say He Loves You."
The ecstatic "I Love You Too Much," the logical follow-up single, is full of Wonder's melismatic flurries, melodic modulations and unusual resolutions, but it also points up his only major drawbacks: a tendency to lyrical cliche's and another tendency to repetition without advancement. "Too Much" clocks in at five and half minutes, but there's only about three minutes of song. Still, with its elastic synthesizer underpinning and the release of emotional frustrations evident in Wonder's vocals, "Too Much" is the perfect reminder that Wonder could probably sing the SALT treaty and come up with a hit.
What he can do with a strong song becomes evident on "Whereabouts," a gorgeous ballad of loss in a Lionel Richie mode ("my whereabouts are somewhere in yesterday with you"). Wonder overcomes the song's rampant maudlin sentimentality with a voice that invites you into its confession of melancholy.
The emotional flip side is another, equally gorgeous, ballad, the soft-focused "Overjoyed," built upon Earl Klugh's acoustic guitar and such environmental percussion as crushed leaves and pebbles dropped in a pond. Leave it to Wonder to draw the natural out of things electronic and computerized, much the same way his passionate delivery makes sense out of lyrics that appear disjointed on paper. A song of affirmation, "Overjoyed" features some of Wonder's most liquid singing, and is only slightly affected at its end by the intrusion of strings.
"In Square Circle's" other fine song is "Never in Your Sun," which seems to draw from the moods of both "Whereabouts" and "Overjoyed." Its lovely melody anchored in a catchy chorus and riding over a jumpy shuffle, "Sun" suggests Wonder's own Paisley Park experience: moping in the park one day, the singer encounters someone who "will only come/in your pouring rain/to relieve the pain," a commitment that he suggests passing on. It's trite, but the melody is hard to dispel, particularly after it's ingrained by a rare harmonica solo.
There are some interesting failures on the album as well. "Spiritual Walkers," the brittle attack on moral absolutists, has much the same funk underpinning of "You Haven't Done Nothing," but the lyrics are obtuse even for Wonder. "Land of La La" is a rather tepid updating of "Living for the City," a scenario desperately in search of our concern. Rhythmically it suggests a tension it never merits, sounding like Elton John doing a Jim Steinman lyric, but it lacks the tension of its predecessor or even "Hotter Than July's" attack on housing discrimination, "Cash in Your Face."
"Go Home," a variation of the rigors of life on the road and wife at home, has a lush, sinuous melody built on a percolating bass line and some guest brass accents, but is also the worst offender on the repetition rap, along with "Stranger on the Shore of Love."
"It's Wrong (Apartheid)" is the album's only overtly political song, and it sustains Wonder's reputation as an acute observer of social injustice and a prophetic voice in pop's political wasteland. Just as the rhythms and simple melody of "Happy Birthday, Martin" did little to mask the insistence of that song regarding the proposed celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, the high-life rhythms of "It's Wrong" buoy a deadly serious message:
"The wretchedness of Satan's wrath will come to seize you at last
'Cause even he frowns upon the deeds you are doing
And you know deep in your heart you've no covenant with God
'Cause he would never countenance people abusing."
And after a moving call and response passage in African dialect on this album, Wonder makes his point even more plainly on the enclosed lyric sheet with the words of an expanded version planned for the single and compact disc recordings:
"The clock of now says it's time for you to make up your mind
Before it's too late for you to earn your redemption."
Wonder divides the song between a dire warning to South Africa's white rulers and a message of hope for that country's blacks, a chorus that repeats over and over "Hold on tight, freedom is coming."
This song will obviously do little to get Wonder back on South Africa's radio playlists, where he has been banned since March for accepting his best song Oscar in the name of imprisoned black leader Nelson Mandela. It would be sad if it didn't get radio play here because of its political sentiment and the ethnic nature of its construction.
"In Square Circle" may not signal any startling growth in Stevie Wonder's art, but it confirms his position as one of pop music's most gifted figures. And if all of the songs are not what we'd hope for after such a long wait, Wonder's singing remains rich, effortlessly supple and inviting, the perfect vehicle for material full of the ascending melodic lines that reflect his warm, all-embracing vision. And with its quick segues between songs, the album is still an ecstatic aural experience.
Incidentally, look for Wonder to do a concert here around Jan. 15, the King Holiday he was so central in establishing.