Album Analysis | Stevie Wonder - Innervisions
Beyond influential for many artists, we examine why Innervisions is an undisputed classic album.
We take a look at a classic should album often considered to be the beginning of Stevie Wonder's Golden period during the 1970s: Innervisions. The nine tracks of this album explore important social themes such as drug addiction, racial injustice, political views against the president, and of course… love. Not only does he experiment with the album format conceptually, but Stevie Wonder also embraces new technology and layers his soul tracks with synthesisers, a new concept for pop music during the 1970s. Beyond influential for many artists, let's examine why Innervisions is an undisputed classic album.
Having already established himself as a Motown hitmaker in the 1960s, by the early 1970s Stevie Wonder had a desire to prove himself as an album artist and to demonstrate his artistic creativity. In 1972, he began to delve deeper into album work and released two albums, Music of My Mind and Talking Book, which despite producing various hits such as "Superstition" and "You Are the Sunshine", featured a higher level of production and experimentation. However, it wasn’t until 1973, during the recording of Innervisions, that Wonder truly pursued his creative ideas. By fully utilising synthesisers, Stevie Wonder used his open mindset and his pop songwriting abilities to become an influential visionary during the 1970s, which is now often cited as his golden period.
The Motown ideology during the 1960s had been focused on the hit single, on top of how many units they could shift. However, by the end of the decade life in America was changing and facing new hurdles with the Vietnam war, racial injustice, and poverty, and this is reflected in the music that started to appear during the early 1970s. Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, and Stevie Wonder all sought to discuss these issues and create music that reflected these troublesome times. Simply put: the typical Motown singles had grown thin for the aspiring artists and the music from Motown was always going to have to change eventually if it wanted to adapt to the changing world. It can be argued that Marvin Gaye What's Goin’ On (1971) paved the way for future albums to explore deeper themes and experiment with production even further and this opened the door for Stevie Wonder's golden age perfectly.
Perhaps one of the most talented artists of the 20th Century, Stevie Wonder and Innervisions continued to prove disability has no restraint on talent. With a run time of 40 minutes over nine tracks, Stevie played pretty much every instrument with various instruments being covered by session musicians during overdubbing. Considering how rhythmically dynamic each track is, this is an amazing achievement and demonstrates just how talented Stevie Wonder is. Not only was he able to fuse funk, soul, and elements of jazz into his music, but he was also able to use his songwriting knowledge and create a unique final product. As well as experimenting with sounds in terms of genre origin, Stevie Wonder is often seen as a visionary for using synthesisers during the 1970s, and using new polyphonic based synthesisers, which allowed more than one note to be played at any time, to layer his songs with new timbres and textures. For this record, Stevie pioneered the use of the T.O.N.T.O synthesiser, developed by the duo Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil, and was the first black artist to make such use of this new technology. A perfect example of this clever fusion can be heard in “Living in the City”, a track consisting of a repetitive funk rhythm with strong passionate soul vocals from Wonder leading to a chorus section which changes key and is met by a huge synthesiser melody which accents the vocal perfectly. To this day this track sounds ahead of its time and fans of modern artists such as Tyler, the Creator and The Internet would hear its influence over the albums Igor and Hive Mind, respectively.
Innervisions is a remarkable example of how an artist can discuss important topics and remain accessible to a wider market - perfect for a label like Motown. Throughout the album, topics of love, racism, poverty, drug addiction, and opinions regarding the president at the time, Richard Nixon, are all explored. On paper, this would be a controversial record, however considering the success of What's Goin On and the social climate of America at the time, it makes perfect sense that Stevie Wonder made Innervisions. The opening track openly discusses drug addiction with the lines:
I'm too high (x2)
But I ain't touched the sky
She's a girl in a dream
She sees a four-eyed cartoon monster on the T.V. screen
She takes another puff and says
It's a crazy scene
That red is green
And she's a tangerine
Here, Wonder discusses the effects of drugs and how our minds can be very easily deceived by them. The simple answer to the chorus “But I ain't touched the sky” can suggest that the character doesn't feel content with his situation, despite the effects of the drugs. Despite the psychedelic mysteries presented in the track, Wonder isn’t advocating for drug use but in the same light, the track doesn’t feel like a message from a preacher - just an artist making us aware of what drugs can do and letting us form our own opinions. One of the highlights from the album is “Higher Ground”, a song which - despite its funky sound - is very introspective, questioning God and his plans for him. In each verse Wonder almost orders people in different situations to essentially continue being themselves:
Teachers keep on teachin'
Preachers keep on preachin'
World keep on turnin'
Lovers keep on lovin'
Believers keep on believin'
Sleepers just stop sleepin'
Cause it won't be too long
I'm so glad that he let me try it again
Cause my last time on earth I lived a whole world of sin
I'm so glad that I know more than I knew then
Gonna keep on tryin'
Till I reach my highest ground…
This track has a very strong spiritual concept focusing on the idea of reincarnation and the idea of having a second chance. Stevie admits his life of sin but also acknowledges having understood life better for his second attempt at reaching "Higher Ground". Depending on your views, this may be heaven, reincarnation or simply a peaceful mind - again Wonder doesn’t preach his views upon the listener, yet provides enough ideas in his lyrics to create a thought-provoking statement.
It's easy to underestimate how much Stevie Wonder and his '70s golden age influenced countless artists and albums to experiment with new instruments, lyrical concepts, and with the album process as a whole. Within pop, Innervisions went on to influence key artists including Michael Jackson in his lyrics and melodies, Prince in his multi-instrumentalist abilities, as well as neo-soul artists from the 1990s such as Erykah Badu and D’Angelo in his use of sub-genre fusion and experimentation with new instruments.
For this project, Wonder questioned society with a sense of spiritual interest that would only grow after completing the album - three days after the release of Innervisions, he was involved in a car crash which left him in a coma for four days. During his time in the hospital, he questioned whether he had been given a second chance at life and was filled with spiritual ideology.
Wonder was left afraid to try and make music again, concerned he didn’t have it in him anymore. However, soon after playing his Clavinet (brought into this room by his friends) Wonder restarted his passion for music, and subsequently, once he had recovered from his injuries, went on to make more masterpieces. Although Innervisions is often cited as a classic in Wonder's discography, it wouldn’t be his only major critical achievement, with the albums Talking Book, Fulfillingness First Finale and the Double album; Songs In The Key Of Life all being critically adored. Stevie Wonder proved time after time that he was one of the greatest artists to grace our ears, and he remains one of the most influential artists to this day.