Stevie Wonder's 1980 tribute to Martin Luther King, "Happy Birthday," is one of his most irresistible we-can-change-the-world anthems. But it also marks the moment when this R&B auteur's musical instincts started to betray him. The song christened Wonder's newly discovered appreciation for drum machines, a bit of sonic hardware that would define his work for the next two decades.
Drum machines worked beautifully for Prince. For one thing, their chilly precision fit like a latex glove over his cold, electronic, bedroom funk. For another, he looked upon them as just another toy to mess with, usually by tuning them down for maximum creepiness. By contrast, Wonder's programmed beats always sounded cheap and thin, and their static quality unintentionally reigned in his natural ebullience. Since declaring his artistic independenc in 1971, Wonder has never made a bad album, but over the last two-plus decades (if you include his silence since 1995's so-so Conversation Peace), he's too often sounded like a master craftsman on auto pilot.
On a purely aural level, Wonder's much-delayed A Time To Love feels like a return to form. For the most part, Wonder relies on live, organic grooves in a manner that recalls his towering series of '70s pop masterpieces. Those albums transcended Wonder's career-long weakness for greeting-card romanticism by overwhelming your senses with buoyant melodicism, production daring, and just enough playful sass ("I Wish") or political outrage ("You Haven't Done Nothin'") to cut through the syrup.
| Stevie Wonder
A Time to Love
On A Time To Love, Wonder's lyrics are more cliched than ever, but the gorgeous balladry of tracks such as "Moon Blue" (a jazzy cousin to the standard "Blue Moon") and "How Will I Know" (which steals its title and theme from an old Whitney Houston hit and gets away with it) can't be denied. Only once, however, does Wonder shoot for the fences and deliver a classic to match his greatest work. "So What the Fuss" is a funky workout that features a supremely cool guitar lick from Prince and one of those rare Wonder lyrics that's both funny (Stevie stuck at a party without his dancing shoes) and caustic (Stevie bringing shame on child molesters, racists, non-voters, junkies, and unnamed warmongers). At least for a scintillating moment, Wonder is again singing in the key of life.