Listening to Stevie Wonder's pioneering 1973 album Innervisions resembles riding an emotional rollercoaster. At one moment Wonder plays the starry-eyed romantic; at another he rails against drugs and racial injustice; and then he renews his spirit through religion and, ultimately, optimism. Audio Fidelity's 24K+ limited edition remastering allows for renewed appreciation of one of Wonder's best albums.
Before discussing the sound quality, it's important to consider the social climate surrounding Innervisions. Richard Nixon was in power, drugs were rampant, poverty ravaged the inner cities, and, as AllMusic's John Bush aptly puts it, “what looked to be the failure of the '60s dream” added to the country's general malaise. Wonder addresses all these issues in an ambitious manner, maintaining his particular brand of funk and soul while avoiding outright preaching. He wastes no time in shattering the image of the late 60s' seemingly innocent drug use. Over a jazzy beat featuring scatting, Wonder paints the picture of a woman who takes numerous trips that at first seem fun, but as he clarifies, “her world's a superficial paradise.” As the song continues, he describes a woman who squandered away any opportunities, gradually losing the apparently positive high she first achieved through drugs. She moves from declaring that “I hope I never ever come down” to “I feel like I'm about to die” later in the track. Eventually Wonder reveals that her drug addiction killed her. After this harrowing portrait, he questions the reality of the 1960s dream in “Visions”--did the civil rights movement and the Woodstock dream of free love come true? Over minimal instrumentation, he bluntly asks “Have I lived to see the milk and honey land?/ Where hate's a dream and love forever stands/ Or is this a vision in my mind?” He clearly does not want to give up on this vision, but he asks if “we have to take our wings and fly away/ To the vision in our mind?” It's a tough question, one that Wonder poses through quiet reflection.
This general unease continues in the mini-drama “Living for the City,” where Wonder lifts the curtain on the realities of inner city living. He narrates the story of a a man growing up in poverty, but he moves from trying to transcend his surroundings to just surviving. His brother cannot find a job, his sister goes to school despite wearing hand-me-downs and having to walk long distances. His parents work hard jobs for little money, but “his parents give him love and affection/ To keep him strong, moving in the right direction.” Despite their love and instruction, the man cannot seem to break this cycle of poverty and hopelessness. “His hair is long, his feet are hard and gritty/ He spends his life walking the streets of New York City,” Wonder growls angrily, the “long hair” reference suggesting a formerly idealistic hippie. “He's almost dead from breathing in air pollution/ He tried to vote, but to him there's no solution.” Then comes the song's pinnacle: the short play portraying a black man arriving in New York, only to be mistaken for a drug dealer and thrown in jail. Is all hope lost? When Wonder resumes singing, he surprisingly suggests no. “I hope you herar inside my voice of sorrow/ And that it motivates you to make a better tomorrow,” he warns. Otherwise “this place is cruel, nowhere could be much colder/ If we don't change, the world will soon be over.” Times may be tough, he argues, but simply giving up will surely worsen already seemingly insurmountable problems.
Instead of wallowing in despair, Wonder shifts gears to a more spiritual and optimistic tone. “Golden Lady” combines romanticism and spirituality to tell a tale of transcendence. In a shuffling, mid-tempo rhythm, Wonder expresses his desire for escapism on a higher level: “To see the heaven in your eyes is not so far/ 'Cause I'm not afraid to try and go it,” he sings, his voice soaring over the keyboards. The theme continues with “Higher Ground,” a reggae-kissed track that has been covered by everyone from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Etta James. While it remains an empowering track, it holds even more resonance when comparing it with other Innervisions songs like “Living for the City.” Despite war, he still has faith in humanity, urging on everyone: “Teachers keep on teachin'/ Preachers keep on preachin'...Believers keep on believin'.” Suggesting belief in reincarnation, Wonder states that he's grateful to have another chance at improving the world, as “I'm so glad that I know more than I knew then.” The following track, “Jesus Children of America,” continues this train of thought, calling out those who may talk, but take no action: “Tell me holy/ Holy roller...Are you standing for everything/ you talk about?” Returning to the subject of “Too High,” he questions a junkie “are you happy when you stick a needle in your vein?” Ultimately Wonder calls for self-reflection and infers that we are accountable for our actions.
Moving from the spiritual side to romance, “All in Love Is Fair” is simply one of the most poetic love songs ever written. Wonder clearly holds no illusions when it comes to love: while “two people vow to stay/ In love as one they say,” neither know what the future will bring. Throughout the ballad he contrasts good and bad, love and war, winning and losing—all supporting his initial theory that “Love's a crazy game.” While “a writer takes his pen/ To write the words again/ That all in love is fair,” no flowery language can fully express the challenges of true love.
Next Wonder provides a break from these serious issues with the fun “Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing,” a Latin-infused number that features humorous dialogue at the beginning. Wonder plays a man desperately trying to impress a woman with his knowledge of language and extensive travel. But as the song progresses, Wonder punctures this character's bravado, instead cautioning those who are “always reachin' out in vain/ Accepting the things not worth having.” He warns those obsessed with being hip and hiding their true selves: “Everybody needs a change... But you're the only one to see/ The changes you take yourself through.” Under the seemingly carefree message of “Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing” is a serious theme of never forgetting one's identity.
The final track, “He's Misstra Know It All,” best exemplifies the hubris-filled man referred to in the previous song. Speculation still swirls that the song describes then-President Richard Nixon, but the main character could be any narcissistic, shallow man who deliberately misleads a misinformed public. Over a midtempo beat and a straight-out-of-gospel piano, Wonder picks apart the blowhard, that he “Makes a deal/ With a smile/ Knowin' all the time that his lie's a smile.” He sarcastically urges everyone to “take their hats off” to “the man that's got the plan,” but he could also be mimicking the ignorant public (voters, maybe?) who are fooled by the charlatan's dazzling personality. But, Wonder argues, we must beware “Of a man who just don't give a care,” that “If we had less of him/ Don't you know we'd have a better land.” In “Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing,” the egotist is laughable; in “He's Misstra Know It All,” this character becomes dangerous.
From start to finish, Innervisions leaves listeners with open-ended questions, incomplete thoughts, and suggestions for how one can improve the world. These serious messages are couched within incredible musicianship; in fact, Wonder played most of the instruments himself. This approach lends to the album's intimate, very personal feel, which is clarified but retained in Audio Fidelity's remastering. I previously owned a vinyl copy of Innervisions, which sounded muddled and muffled the percussion as well as other instruments. Thanks to Kevin Gray's remastering and the 24K gold coating on the CD (allowing for fewer surface imperfections), all percussion resounds clearly, which makes for fascinating listening. In turn, Wonder's vocals sound sharpened, making the often evocative lyrics much easier to understand. Overall, this limited edition allows for renewed appreciation of this landmark work, an album that continued Wonder's incredible '70s artistic streak.