One can argue which album or albums marked the true beginning of 1970s progressive soul; was it Sly & The Family Stone's Stand!? Marvin Gaye's What's Going On? War's The World is a Ghetto? Stevie Wonder's Talking Book?
What cannot be denied is on what album the genre truly peaked – Wonder’s 1976 magnum opus Songs in the Key of Life. Released on Sept. 28 of that year, the record was the culmination of Wonder’s early ‘70s output and an outpouring of his prodigious creative power, and is named by many as perhaps the greatest album of the decade, if not one of the greatest of all time.
Spread across two LPs and a 7” "A Something's Extra" EP, Songs in the Key of Life was a sprawling collection on which Wonder expressed himself across multiple genres – there were moments of pop, R&B, gospel, funk, world and electronic music, each one a brilliant distillation of Wonder’s muse in the language of that style.
Wonder packed the album with so many highlights, it’s hard to choose which to call out. He paid tribute to Duke Ellington (and Count Basie, Glen Miller, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald) on the chart-topping “Sir Duke,” spiking his funk with insistent (and insistently memorable) horns and punctuating his verses with a high-flying chorus. You certainly can feel it all over.
On “Isn’t She Lovely” – never a single but a radio favorite to this day – Wonder celebrates the birth of his daughter, Aisha, complete with the sounds of a baby’s cry (ostensibly Aisha’s) and of Wonder bathing his daughter as a toddler. There is pure, uncut joy in the track, and a (no pun intended) wonderment at the miracle of life (“I never thought through love we'd be/Making one as lovely as she”).
“Pastime Paradise” puts an ominous melody (partially taken from a Bach composition, and later the backbone to Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise") to the service of a rebuke of those who spend so much time thinking about the past, they let their present rot around them.
“I don’t want to bore you with my trouble,” Wonder sings in “Knocks Me Off My Feet,” before telling his beloved of the effect she has on him. It’s a modest conceit, but one that’s placed in such a breezy, poppy setting, you can’t help but imagine the song in some phantom musical, probably as a showstopper.
For all the hard-nosed reproof of looking back in “Pastime Paradise,” Wonder makes “I Wish” (another No. 1 smash) a joyous celebration of nostalgia for simpler times, when a boy could be naughty and disobedient and suffer only minor consequences.
No discussion of Songs in the Key of Life is complete without mention of “As,” one of Wonder’s greatest contributions to progressive soul and an undeniable highlight of the record. It’s a simple concept – the singer pledges his love to his partner for “always,” then elaborates on the strange phenomena that could happen without that love dissipating. The list goes on for over seven minutes, and the song delectably builds as that list expands.
If you haven’t listened to Songs in the Key of Life recently, do yourself a favor and queue it up. Even all these years since its release, it remains a balm for difficult times and a beautiful, soulful record to spend time with and get lost in.