Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 534
[How] does one approach the prodigy who technically deserves the highest of accolades, yet allows the grandeur of his work to obfuscate his perspective?… Stevie Wonder's Songs In The Key Of Life is the first album which has stirred such ambivalent—nearly dichotomous—reactions within me in a long, long time….
[Since] when has it become incumbent upon Stevie Wonder to project himself as a spokesperson—spiritual, political, or otherwise? Have A Talk With God? Thanks, but my editor's heavy enough. Black Man? I'm not trying to slight Stevie's intentions, but I think we have more effective and less pedantic means at our disposal to impart historical lessons without catering to boring, endless recitations. I'm afraid many of us (myself included) have been screaming "genius" at Stevie Wonder for so long that it has impaired his judgment. "For I do believe it is that Stevie Wonder … must be carried on his mission to spread love mentalism," he declares in his opening liner notes. I'm sorry, but the man simply fails to qualify as a prophet or messiah. I'm not moved by Stevie the "leader," but rather Stevie the music maker….
[So] much music on this record blows me away that I often end up thinking: So what if Stevie is preachy and extravagant? So what if he's lost the intuitive thread that made Talking Book a landmark? "Just because a record has a groove / Don't make it in the groove," cites Stevie in his Ellington tribute, Sir Duke, and though his art may be more notable for its artifice at this point, when he strikes those first few chords, I can't help but capitulate.
The entirety of sides one and two and the first three tracks from the EP are the real meat of this sacred cow. Love's In Need Of Love Today, Have A Talk With God, and Saturn are gorgeous pieces, brimming with full, rotund harmonies and seamless, multilayered instrumental weavings. Knocks Me Off My Feet and Summer Soft are the kind of guilessly sensitive songs so many of us have come to love Stevie for in the past, as close to offering personal feelings as this album gets. And while Stevie's head is definitely lost somewhere in the cosmic cloud of unknowing, his instincts are still terrestrial enough to reel off infectious rockers like I Wish (this album's Superstition), Ordinary Pain …, Ebony Eyes, and All Day Sucker.
But too many "endless endings" (which translates as filler) and not enough willingness to challenge the medium dilute Key Of Life's impact. Contusion may show Stevie can hold his own with Corea and the rest, and Sir Duke convincingly and enchantingly demonstrates his affinity for swing; but the closest Wonder comes here to breaking new ground is Village Ghetto Land, with its chilling, bloody imagery set against a deceptive, alluring string section. Maybe too close for comfort. More incisive insight of that order and less didactic, gratuitous … moral and religious advice, and Stevie Wonder may still become the musical icon he so obviously longs to be. But I don't think music needs a "born again" Jimmy Carter. Nor even a soulful John Denver. (p. 24)
Mikal Gilmore, in down beat (copyright 1976 by Maher Publications), December 16, 1976.