50 Best Albums, by Brendan O’Malley, #9. Stevie Wonder, Innervisions

My talented brother Brendan O’Malley is an amazing writer and actor. He’s wonderful in the recent You & Me, directed by Alexander Baack. (I interviewed Baack about the film here.) His most recent gig was story editor/writer on the hit series Survivor’s Remorse. Brendan hasn’t blogged in years, but the “content” (dreaded word) is so good I asked if I could import some of it to my blog. He did series on books he loved, and albums he loved. I thought it would be fun to put up some of the stuff here. So we’ll start with his list of 50 Best Albums. I’ll put up one every Monday.

Brendan’s list of 50 Best Albums is part music-critique and part memoir and part cultural snapshot.

I have always loved these essays, because I love to hear my brother talk. I am happy to share them with you!

50 Best Albums, by Brendan O’Malley

9. Stevie Wonder – Innervisions

Imagine you are preparing for the Singing Olympics. You will be competing against all other singers. The competition goes like this: You don’t know what you will sing. It might be rock, it might be opera, it might be R&B, it might be jazz, it might be Broadway, it might be a standard, it might be a folk song.

How the hell do you prepare for these Singing Olympics? (Now that I’ve imagined them I desperately want them to happen and I want to compete.)

Here is what I would suggest. Put Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions on repeat and sing along. If you do that for a year, you will be in great shape. And you will have touched on just about any style you might need to draw on in order to win the Singing Olympics.

Unless of course Stevie himself is entered into the competition.

Then you might as well drop out and watch because you ain’t winning. I first heard this album in college and, as I wrote about in my reviews of The Who and The Stones, it was still a shock that I would find something I liked in the mainstream. But on closer inspection, there is nothing mainstream about this music at all. Sure it is wildly popular but mainstream? Nope. This is experimental, personal, angry, wild, unpredictable, passionate and BIZARRE music.

When you realize that every sound you hear is pretty much being made by Stevie himself, the impact grows. When you know that he fought for creative control and left Motown so that he could stretch away from being the cute kid who played the harmonica, it explodes. “Living For The City”, the famous centerpiece of the album, is shocking TODAY. Imagine how it sounded a mere 5 years after Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated.

But let us go back to the imaginary Singing Olympics for a moment, shall we? In “Living For The City”, we hear the Stevie we’ve all come to know and love. That voice, clear as a bell, opens the song and we settle into it like you settle into your favorite outfit. It is familiar but perfect. Then the song breaks down into a narrative at the center of it, telling the story of a young black man coming to New York and immediately being railroaded into the penal system by a desperate drug dealer and racist cops. When the vocal line comes back in, Stevie Wonder is virtually unrecognizable.

The melody is still there, yes. But it is buried in a bark, a growl, the voice of a man who is unable to even see the difference in skin color that is somehow at the heart of the tragedy he has imagined. His anger is palpable. It drips in every word and Stevie Wonder, the smiling warm-hearted genius, is TERRIFYING. The mere tone of his voice has indictment INSIDE of it somehow.

Flip that emotion on its ear and you will have “All In Love Is Fair” which just might be the single saddest most beautiful recording of Wonder’s career.

The plaintive pain that informs the vocal arrangement is so perfectly articulated that you barely notice the effort it takes to achieve it. In other words, the Pyramids have an effect simply by being there. You have to force yourself to imagine a moment when they weren’t there. And the work that went into them has completely disappeared but for the final product.

Pop this song on when you are in the shower so you won’t be embarrassed. I have been PAID to sing professionally and let me tell you…this shit is IMPOSSIBLE. It goes so high, the lyrics are deceptively simple but hard to articulate clearly, and all of it has to be filled to the brim emotionally or else it will sound like a bad Hallmark card opened on a Grandma’s birthday. Opening yourself up to the attempt of singing this song is to almost guarantee that you will burst into tears at some point.

Oh, right, let’s go back to the fact that he played every instrument on the album. This is literally the music that happens inside of his head. My ex-wife used to say that his stuff sounds ALIEN, as if it were created by a higher power, or an outside force, something beyond humanity.

Stevie Wonder. Perennial Gold Medalist in the Imaginary Singing Olympics. In fact, let’s cancel the competition until he decides to hang it up.

— Brendan O’Malley

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