‘A writer takes his pen’: The poetic, apocalyptic lyricism of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Innervisions’
TheGrio celebrates the 50th anniversary of Wonder’s Grammy-winning album, “Innervisions,” a dark depiction of America’s bleak future from one of the most affable artists of all time.
“Motown superstar Stevie Wonder dead at 23 after a car accident.”
People don’t realize how close that headline could’ve been a reality. On Aug. 6, 1973, just three days after releasing his 19th studio album, “Innervisions,” Wonder wound up in a coma he nearly didn’t wake up from.
“Innervisions” is an exquisite display of the attributes that make Wonder a musical icon; dynamic vocals, virtuoso piano and harmonica playing, progressive production, singular drumming and percussion. While his songwriting is also peerless on this LP, his lyricism takes the project into rarified air.
Had Wonder left us then, the album would have stood as his final will and testament to the world, in which he would bequeath to society his internal disdain, a sonic prophecy of its feasible demise. “Innervisions” is the album where Wonder stretched out his poetic aptitudes to deliver a lyrical onslaught that held a nation accountable for its chaos.
“Innervisions” marked the first time Wonder wrote the lyrics to every song on an album in his career. Just three years before, as a guest on “The Dick Cavett Show,” Wonder explained that he’d usually let Sylvia Moy or future wife Syreeta Wright pen the lyrics to his songs, compensating for what he considered his weakest attribute. “I was very bad in school at poetry, so I definitely am not a lyric writer,” the 20-year-old Wonder said.
With that modest self-deprecation of his handle on words, it’s baffling that the first single to include Wonder’s own lyrics was 1972’s “Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You).”
Since 1971, when he received full creative control from Motown, Wonder slowly transitioned into writing lyrics to match the power and nuance of his compositions. On 1972’s “Music of My Mind” and “Talking Book,” Wonder contributed lyrics to six songs each, with Syreeta Wright and Yvonne Wright (no relation) writing the words for the remaining songs.
Following “Talking Book,” recorded after his break-up with Syreeta, Wonder wanted his next album to be a change in tone. Its original title was “The Last Day of Easter,” according to Steve Lodder’s “Stevie Wonder: A Musical Guide to the Classic Albums.” Intended to be edgier and darker, this time, Wonder was responsible for writing every word himself.
When most think of Stevie Wonder, they picture a jovial, idealistic icon who preaches positivity and world change as a reachable goal. To that end, “Innervisions” does contain two of Wonder’s most beloved statements of genuine affection, humor and encouragement in “Golden Lady” and “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing.”
However, “Innervisions,” arguably the most acclaimed album of Wonder’s career, is full of cynicism, anger, and fear of futility. In the era of the Nixon administration, five years removed from the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, America had scarcely been so polarized.
The album’s opener, “Too High,” unveiled the sour side of the flower-power drug revolution of the late 1960s. Starting with the imagery of “a girl in a dream/she’s a four-eyed cartoon monster on the TV screen,” it slowly spirals into ultimately fatal perils of mind-altering substances.
Wonder continued his storytelling path with “Living For the City.” The song is a microcosm of the predicament of many Black Americans, habituating in subpar conditions while maintaining dignity and pride, all while systemic prejudice lurks right around the corner of a residence in “hard time Mississippi.”
“Her brother’s smart; he’s got more sense than many,
His patience’s long, but soon he won’t have any,
To find a job is like a haystack needle,
‘Cause where he lives, they don’t use colored people,
Living just enough, just enough for the city.”
In ‘Visions,” Wonder writes, “the law was never passed, but somehow all men feel they’re truly free at last/have we really gone this far through space and time, or is this a vision in my mind?”
Can the utopia we want be achievable in our tangible, earthly lives, or can it only be attained with the constructs of our collective subconscious?
Wonder offers these cautionary motifs throughout “Innervisions” as warnings to all that doom is on our heels if we continue to walk down the path of racism, greed, deception and apathy. On “Jesus Children of America,” the hook cautions, “You better tell your story fast, ’cause if you lie, it will come to pass.”
On “Higher Ground,” he repeats, “World keeps on turning, ’cause it won’t be too long.” Too long for what? Many songs on “Innervisions” deal with death or endings looming in the shallow spaces hovering just above our heads.
Even in love, Wonder wrote with an atmosphere of bleakness and confusion. In “All in Love is Fair,” he conveys the uncertainty of what love can bring to us, bracing the listener for an impending dose of heartbreak that can’t be avoided.
“All has changed with time,
The future none can see,
The road you leave behind,
Ahead lies mystery,
But all is fair in love.”
Given the nation’s temperature, “Innervisions” closes with “He’s Misstra Know-It-All,” a thinly veiled condemnation of President Nixon’s ongoing deception amid sweeping policies against Black communities, all in the shadow of the Watergate scandal. His sarcastic dig, “Give a hand to the man that you know damn well’s got a super plan,” satirizes the two-faced nature of the White House.
What’s strange is that Wonder’s apocalyptic manifestation coincided with personal feelings that his own death was swiftly imminent. In an interview with Q magazine, he implied an approach to his demise with lines like “I’ll be here until I die.” He also talked about the urgent writing of a song in three hours. “It was almost as if I had to get it done. I felt something was going to happen.”
His premonitions nearly came to pass.
In the Aug. 6 automobile accident, where a log from a large truck dislodged and flew through a windshield, striking Wonder in his forehead, the prognosis was so dire doctors called Berry Gordy to Wonder’s bedside to prepare for the worst. The death of 23-year-old Stevie Wonder would’ve caused a cataclysmic shift in music history and altered the collective humanity of Black America.
Not only would his catalog of peerless music following “Innervsions” have never been created, but the influence of those subsequent records, including “Fulfillingness’ First Finale,” “Songs in the Key of Life,” “Hotter Than July,” and others, wouldn’t have informed the direction that R&B and pop music were destined to go.
Also, without “Hotter Than July” and its hit single, “Happy Birthday,” who knows if Dr. King’s birthday would have become a national holiday?
The righteous indignation of “Innervisions” and Wonder’s lyricism therein revealed a nation at the brink of moral annihilation. However, his ability to convey these ideas and music with such imaginative poetry penetrated people’s hearts enough to praise his work, becoming the first of three consecutive albums by Wonder to win the Grammy Award for album of the year.
Furthermore, songs like “Too High” would later inform Prince in 1987’s “Sign O’ the Times,” with the line, “In September, my cousin tried reefer for the very first time/now he’s doing horse; it’s June.” Meanwhile, “Living For the City” preceded Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message,” with a story mirroring that of the “hard time Mississippi” resident: “A child is born with no state of mind, blind to the ways of mankind/God’s smiling on you, but He’s frowning too, ‘cause only God knows what you’ll go through.”
Most importantly, the world responded. If a man born without physical sight can identify the optical imperfections of a society with such descriptive detail, then who are we not to at least acknowledge it? Wonder offered us a glimpse of our destruction, and the people decided this shouldn’t be the way. We’re still here 50 years later, and so is Wonder.
Matthew Allen is an entertainment writer of music and culture for theGrio. He is an award-winning music journalist, TV producer and director based in Brooklyn, NY. He’s interviewed the likes of Quincy Jones, Jill Scott, Smokey Robinson and more for publications such as Ebony, Jet, The Root, Village Voice, Wax Poetics, Revive Music, Okayplayer, and Soulhead. His video work can be seen on PBS/All Arts, Brooklyn Free Speech TV and BRIC TV.
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