Songs in the Key of Life, or Can You Really Think of a Better Title for an Album Review?

Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder [1976; Motown Records]

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“There’s songs to make you smile,
There’s songs to make you sad,
But with a happy song to sing
It never seems so bad.”


You can view my Stevie Wonder listening stats here.

My 5 Favorite Tracks:

  1. “Isn’t She Lovely”
  2. “Knocks Me off My Feet”
  3. “Summer Soft”
  4. “Have a Talk with God”
  5. “Love’s in Need of Love Today”

Joe’s Rating: 5/5 (“Well, it’s perfect to me.”)


I was talking with a friend the other day when he posed to me the following question:

“What’s a good mood, anyway?”

This made me think: we often characterize our emotions in a very reductive and arbitrary manner. When we say we are in a good mood, what does this really mean? Are we happy? If so, are we merely happy? To what extent are we happy? In what manner are we happy? From what source comes our happiness? Are we constantly happy?

Truthfully, I find moments of happiness in the small pleasures of life: a child’s laughter, a sunny day, a beautiful view, a moving song—but, it would be wrong to say, “I am happy.” I’m not just happy; I’m sad that I have lost certain people in my life whom I care about dearly and regretful that I have become distant from others; I’m angry at the injustice and indifference in the world; I’m grateful that—at least—there are some compassionate people in the world; I wistfully lament the simpler times of the past; I’m excited for the future. With happiness comes a vast array of other emotions that lie on the periphery.

Stevie Wonder does not cowardly hide from the complexity of human emotions with Songs in the Key of Life; lyrically and sonically, he seems to encapsulate the totality of our emotional existence in just 21 songs. He’ll knock you down with the harsh realities of the world that we live in with tracks like “Love’s in Need of Love Today” and get you right back up on your feet moments later with tracks like “Have a Talk with God”. The way Stevie accurately and economically represents human emotion astounds me, but furthermore, he superbly represents emotional volatility using the power of lyric and sound to create harmonious continuity and unity within this album.

“Morning rain
Gently plays her rhythms on your window pane
Giving you no clue of when she plans to change
To bring rain or sunshine.”

stevie-wonder-again

In music, emotion is characterized in an abstract manner. When teaching young, budding musicians about the differences between major and minor keys, a technical explanation can be rather difficult for a student to immediately grasp; as a young child, I was taught that a composition is in a major key when it sounds “happy” and in a minor key when it sounds “sad.” As abstract as emotion in music is, it is surprisingly easy to comprehend. The songs on this album are not always in a major key; they’re not always in a minor key; they’re in the key of life, something much more vague: a beautifully complicated thing that you can never begin to truly comprehend until you listen to this album!

Stevie Wonder

Stevie has been through pleasure, pain and everything in between just as we all have (and he is proof that you do not have to be able to see the world in order to form some understanding of it, a common misconception). He’s not contriving anything; he’s not sugarcoating any sort of package that will appeal to a certain demographic and sell; he’s just telling it how it was, for life can be a simultaneously beautiful and ugly thing. As indicated by the album’s cover, Stevie was just in the middle of it all: the light and the darkness of rippling, reverberating, concentrically circular heartbeats of ocher—the good, the bad, and everything else. Life will bare its teeth at you and rip your heart out, growling and foaming at the mouth like a rabid wolf, but sometimes you can’t help but admire its sharp fangs and shrill howl; that’s what life presents you with when you try to live: beauty in ugliness, newfound wisdom in times of turbulence—something more than meets the eye. Like the catastrophic Challenger crash or the 9/11 attacks, life can be truly horrendous, but we can’t help but acknowledge the existence of this horror and remember it. Life has happened and is happening; it’s a history that is continually writing (and rewriting) itself, the magnum opus of some other-worldly Shakespeare. We must recognize the totality of our lives—the joys, the pleasures, the trivialities, the travesties, and everything else—before we can move forward, and we cannot hide from the realities of our lives; documenting our experiences, like Stevie did, aids us in this process.

-J.S.T.

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