Stevie Wonder was already a well-respected and admired artist by the fall of 1972. Earning his creative freedom from Motown, Stevie released Music of my mind earlier in the year to critical success, but in late October, he got love all across the board for Talking Book, a sonically amazing masterpiece that covers all aspects of romance with some social commentary thrown in for good measure.
Talking Book was the first of Stevie’s classic period albums to win the Grammy for album of the year and for good reason. As Where I’m coming from and Music of my mind were the prototypes for Stevie’s blend of funk, rock and soul, “Talking Book” is the beautiful finished product with meaningful lyrics sung over top-notch musicianship and production.
Talking Book, save for two tracks, is an amazing contemplation of all stages of a relationship, good, bad and ugly, continuing a theme from Music of my mind but with even more substance and less tongue-in-cheek. It seems very autobiographical, as Stevie’s 18-month marriage to his writing partner and friend, the late Syreeta Wright, was over by the time of the album’s release and with Syreeta co-writing two of the most gut-wrenching tracks on the album, art definitely imitates life.
The album starts off innocently enough with “You are the sunshine of my life,” with assistance from vocalist Jim Gilstrap and Wonderlove member Lani Groves, a sweet-three minute romp about a lover who is everything.
Then it gets real with “Maybe your baby,” a clavinet and Ray Parker Jr. guitar-infused song of paranoia, with Stevie wondering if his woman has indeed “made some other plans.” Stevie accuses his love interest of stepping out with his best friend and the very thought scares him to death.
Not much can be said that hasn’t been said about “You and I.” Covered for a modest hit by 80s R&B stalwart O’Bryan 10 years later, “You and I” is a beautiful, airy love song with Stevie happy to find someone to conquer the world with together. Both versions are still wedding ceremony staples, as evidenced by the infamous cover by Michael Evans on Good Times when Thelma got married to Keith.
“Tuesday Heartbreak” is a straight-up groove that somehow glorifies the gray area of a relationship’s ending stages where you want to make it work but you’re not sure it can be done or if it’s even worth it.
Sly, slick and confident are three words to describe “You’ve got it bad girl.” Stevie is at his smoothest vocally, almost whispering that this woman is missing out on “the tenderness that’s in my kiss.” On an album where sadness and paranoia run wild, Stevie seems to be confident that it’s her loss if she chooses not to be with him.
Even Talking Book’s most famous song has a relationship meaning behind it (to me, anyway) – “Superstition” connected nationally like no other, becoming Stevie’s first pop #1 since his debut single “Fingertips Pt. 2“ a decade earlier. Originally intended for guitarist Jeff Beck, Stevie recorded it himself on the advice of Berry Gordy and a funky ass-song about how about old superstitions “ain’t the way” helped Stevie Wonder become Stevie Wonder. And it gives me an excuse to post this amazing jam session on Sesame Street:
Taking a break from matters of the heart, Stevie addresses the burgeoning Watergate scandal in a synth and harmonica-laced diss track called “Big Brother.” Stevie called out Richard Nixon not by name for three albums straight, but this song (and “He’s Misstra Know It All” from Innversions and “You haven’t done nothin” from Fulfillingness’ First Finale) could apply to most politicians and elected officials 40 years
“Blame it on the sun” was co-written with Syreeta and clearly this song illustrates the feelings of their romantic break-up. A heartbreakingly beautiful song from the lyrics and metaphors within the chorus to the actual music, it’s a soundtrack for anyone who can relate to a relationship gone bad and ending and when you want to blame him, blame her, blame whoever – regardless of who’s fault it is, it’s over and it hurts.
After the break-up described in “Blame it on the sun,” “Looking for another pure love” is going about picking up the pieces and trying to love again. Admitting that his lover finding someone new “is a problem in my life,” Stevie knows that it’s time to move on and hopefully he can find his own new love.
Closing out the album is an epic song of hope, “I believe when I fall in love (It will be forever).” Even after all the infidelity, the anger, the sadness, the hurt and heartbreak, there’s room to love again. Stevie breaks into joyous shouting at the end, complete with his own voice as backing vocals asking “Don’t you wanna, don’t you wanna, don’t you wanna fall in love?”
Talking Book almost gets lost in the shuffle because of the two classics Stevie released after that (Innervisions and Songs in the key of life), but if you’re looking for the start of Stevie Wonder as legend complete with an honest look at romance and relationships, this album certainly holds up as it turns 40 on Sunday.