#90: Stevie Wonder, "Talking Book" (1972)

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For the longest time, I thought one of my most treasured Stevie Wonder tracks, “Superstition,” was off 1982’s Original Musiquarium, and not 1972’s Talking Book.

That’s my fault.

When I picked up Musiquarium in college, I considered myself a “serious” Stevie Wonder fan. I’ve put that in air quotes because clearly, I was neither astute nor serious enough to realize Musiquarium was a greatest hits/unreleased-tracks compilation album. Being able to say I listened to the Beatles since I was nine, for example, doesn’t give me a pass for not reading the liner notes.

“Superstition,” a groove-heavy juggernaut tinged with evil and laced with apprehension, remains undefeated in funk music for Wonder’s still unsurpassed mastery of the Hohner clavinet.

And for years, I barely gave Talking Book a glance.

Other Wonder fans over the years told me I would like it, but I put it off. Ignorant and stubborn as I was (I’d like to say “headstrong,” but come on), I’m embarrassed to say its cover stopped me from picking it up sooner. He’s shown sitting on the ground, wearing an earth-tone caftan and jewelry and lazily touching the dune sand with his hands.

It all seemed too weepy, too sappy, and too touchy-feely. It appeared to me that Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life, with covers that illustrate Wonder as being the center of a psychedelically woke universe, would be deeper, more spiritual and groovier than Talking Book.

When I finally did buy it, I didn’t appreciate most of it at first, simply because “Superstition” absolutely, every single time, blows me away, especially the way the swoosh-swoosh drum line plays cat and mouse with intertwined layers of buzzy notes from the clavinet. When it hits that sliver of a bridge, the horn section unravels and goes haywire, jeering and wailing and taunting Wonder as he cries out as if struck by lightning. The other tracks didn’t stand a chance. Forty-six years of “Superstition” have reigned on earth, unvarnished and raw.

Learning about the grace, inimitable heart, and genius talent of Stevie Wonder began in the mid-‘80s, when I found my mom’s CD (or tape, I can’t remember which), of 1985’s In Square Circle. Already his 20th album, he could easily make pop gems like “Love You Too Much” and “Go Home” instantly catchy, despite the synthy glaze that was so popular then.

But I especially loved the gentle vibrato and captivating lyrics of “Overjoyed,” which I played over and over. It brought me near tears every time I heard it, and I couldn’t place why for a long time. I can’t explain it, but I can only come to this conclusion: he could make his voice “smile” through the speakers. It’s one of his most endearing vocal qualities. It makes my eyes sting whenever I hear it on classics like “Joy Inside My Tears,” or “As,” or “Ribbon In the Sky,” or even “My Cherie Amour,” from his previous identity as a fresh-faced Motown wunderkind.

That exuberance shines on Talking Book, but it’s more than that. The album’s inner core comes down to love.

Love, in its many forms and interpretations, is always woven throughout Wonder’s vast catalog—love as lust, love as romantic, love as spiritual, love as universal, love that’s never returned, love as an arm of humanity. And spinning out from that bright sphere are warm rays of hope, faith, kindness, tenderness, celebration, and most of all, thankfulness for just being alive. That’s Talking Book.

Much of the album reflects Wonder’s wildly changing emotions and all the thorny complications caused by imperfect relationships. Its moods are punctuated by the familiar pangs and rushes of adrenaline rendered by pure joy and happiness, suspicion and desperation, cynicism and peace. As the album ends, he finally reaches acceptance and the hope that maybe next time won’t hurt so bad.

His love of love eventually extended, as he left his Motown roots further behind, toward socio-economic issues and championing political activism in his lyrics. That’s briefly touched on in one of my favorite songs off Talking Book: “Big Brother,” where he lambasts the white politician on his TV screen who spouts injustices as Wonder sings, “My name is Secluded / We live in a house the size of a matchbox.” And he throws in the imagery of roaches in that home, just for good measure.

While “Big Brother” previewed what would come in future albums, Talking Book as a whole is a revelation of these emotions. Its start, “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” is undeniably shiny and mellow. But doubt and paranoia creep in on “Maybe Your Baby,” when suspicion, and then full-blown obsession, take hold as his inner monologue about his girl’s whereabouts runs amok. But love lurks, and his doubts never veer into maliciousness toward her; it instead wades toward emotions like sadness, frustration, and vulnerability.

When his love is unreturned, he grabs onto the silver lining of “You and I (We Can Conquer the World).” Though their future together is over, in his mind it’s eternal, and that’s enough. Again, Wonder never devolves into sappiness. “You and I” validates the construct that, even if it’s just for a split second or a sharply drawn breath, maybe he really could conquer the world. He lets in the notion that it’s okay to dream that big. The fuzzy, woozy splendor and jazzy keyboard of “You’ve Got It Bad Girl,” closes Side A and fades into memory.

“Superstition,” on the other hand, is the monster that kicks open the second half of the record. It’s the beat-stomping, ass-shaking outlier here, a standalone piece of earth shattering art. When I first heard it as a kid, I was afraid that singing “13-month-old baby /  broke the looking glass / seven years of bad luck / good things in your past…” would actually reach out and shake me. Stevie Wonder represented something forbidden, something that was just down and out bad, and I loved it.

If that could be considered the album’s apex, “Blame It On The Sun” is its polar opposite. It’s about coming to a stark realization: he alone has sabotaged yet another failed relationship. At first he places the catalyst for its demise on not enough time, on the birds, on the always-changing tide—everything except himself, until he finally gives in. It’s the lowest and most revealing point of the album.

The optimism in “Lookin’ For Another Pure Love” turns his head toward the future. He thinks: Maybe this one is the right one. Wonder accepts his mistakes as an imperfect mortal, and again, reawakens that hopefulness. The song’s companion piece and the album’s coda, “I Believe When I Fall In Love,” tells us that all the pain, all the struggles we go through in life…it’s all worth it. This is Stevie saying, “Try again, even if the last one hurt you beyond recognition.”

So I want to thank you, Stevie, for reminding us to try love again. And if we fail, at least we can still smile inside our tears.

—Emily Reily