“Here is my music. It is all I have to tell you how I feel. Know that your love keeps my love strong.” This message from Stevie Wonder to his listeners was embossed in braille on the cover of the original LP pressings of Talking Book, his 1972 masterpiece, and the beginning of his incredible run of ’70s classics. Even though Wonder had been making music professionally for about a decade — Talking Book was his 15th studio album — the ability to use his music to express his emotions and opinions was a relatively new experience for him. From the time he signed to Motown as a child prodigy until he became 21, Wonder recorded songs written and produced by Motown’s in-house staff, many of which were pop and R&B hits. At first, Wonder was amenable to this arrangement, but as he got older and became more adept with his musicianship, he began to develop his own musical ambitions, ones that strained against the limits of the Motown machine.
So in 1971, when Wonder turned 21 — the age when he was contractually allowed to be in charge of his own finances — and his Motown contract came up for renewal, he used the leverage he acquired as a reliable hitmaker to demand more autonomous terms. Wonder insisted on owning his publishing, better royalty rates, and, most importantly, total artistic control over his work. Motown acquiesced to all demands, setting the stage for one of the most prolific and creatively fecund artistic runs in pop music history.
Talking Book, which was released on October 28, 1972, was the second album Wonder put out that year. On March 3, he released Music of My Mind, the first album under his new Motown contract. This record marked a crucial turning point in the development of Wonder’s sound, with the beginning of his collaboration with electronic music pioneers Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff, and his extensive use of their massive TONTO analog synthesizer, which Wonder would feature on this and the three albums to follow. The amazingly versatile polyphony of sounds he got out of this instrument, as well as the Fender Rhodes electric piano, Hohner clavinet, and Moog synth bass he would add to it, allowed Wonder to essentially become a one-man band, with just a few select additional musicians and backup singers to help him out.
Talking Book fully delivered on the promise of Wonder’s braille message to let us know how he felt about things, and one subject he dealt with extensively on this album was love and relationships. This thematic concern gets its most idyllic expression on the album’s opening track, “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” the second of just two singles released from Talking Book, and also the second of two #1 pop hits from the record. The song’s clear inspiration is Syreeta Wright, a woman who started out at Motown as a secretary, then became a singer and songwriter. Wonder and Wright became musical collaborators, co-writing songs on his 1971 album Where I’m Coming From, with Wonder subsequently producing Wright’s first two solo albums. (Wright also co-wrote two songs on Talking Book.) They married in 1970, but this union lasted just 18 months, and they were already divorced by the time “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” was released. This ironic backstory, however, does nothing to dispel the chilled-out vibe and beauty of the intoxicated expressions of love toward the object of the song’s affection: “You must have known that I was lonely / Because you came to my rescue / And I know that this must be heaven / How could so much love be inside of you?”
This utopian vision of romantic bliss is followed on the album by its complete obverse, in the bluesy, lovesick lament “Maybe Your Baby.” Over the course of a nearly seven-minute sonic landscape littered with jealousy and paranoia, Wonder moans over his lover’s cheating and abandonment, as his clavinet and Moog bass sinuously bend their notes, and Ray Parker Jr.’s guitar wails in the background. The voices inside his head seem to almost mock his misery, endlessly repeating what he already knows: “Maybe your baby done made some other plans.” Eventually, his psyche, as well as the music itself, disintegrates into shattered pieces, never to be put together again.
Love wasn’t the only thing on Wonder’s mind on Talking Book; he got political as well. “Superstition,” the album’s first single and its first #1 pop hit, warns of the dangers of unquestioningly trusting the alleged wisdom of others. Over an infectious syncopated drum beat and a nasty clavinet riff, Wonder delivers a message that, in this present age of literally murderous social media-fueled conspiracy theories, has probably never been more relevant: “When you believe in things / That you don’t understand / Then you suffer / Superstition ain’t the way.”
No hyperbole, Talking Book is pretty much a perfect record, with nothing but highlights: the jaunty political folk-soul of “Big Brother,” the soaring torch-song ballad “You and I (We Can Conquer the World),” the regretful, self-lacerating “Blame It on the Sun.” But perhaps the most exquisite thing about Talking Book was that it marked but the beginning; from here straight through to his 1976 magnum opus Songs in the Key of Life, Stevie Wonder would bless us with an unbroken string of enduring masterworks.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Album Canon.