The sound of progress is a wonky vocoder warble, a synthesized squeak.
Lo, a robot fart.
As far as icons go, Stevie Wonder is one in which no honest logic can deny. Arguably, no other musical figure of the 70's is more influential. This might be easily overlooked by some but as a simple act of serious observation would suggest, almost no other figure reaches as far, in any definition of geography that is, whether it be physical or musical. As reliable as a ticktock Bavarian clock, he consistently came through in his prime, releasing album after album of unadulterated artistry and genuine foresight.
And he started with robot farts.
Music of the Mind is pretty much the root of this uniform series of genius and it owes a whole lot to the machines, namely the Arp and Moog synthesizers Wonder adopted as major tools in his creative process. The two models go a long way to define the character of the album.
Unsurprisingly, the album is often considered the artistic rebirth of Wonder, a rebirth shaped as much by his roots in R&B as it is by his interest in electronic instrumentation. A complete album distanced from the creative umbrella of Motown, Music of the Mind shows off Wonder's new sound. It's a sound that places him with a very unique group of contemporaries, the likes of Kraftwerk, Brian Eno and a good few others, artists experimenting with electronic sounds in a pop music context.
The results here are somewhat mixed. Unlike many other electronic progenitors, Wonder's music is so far from cold, it's a flambée drinking hot cocoa in Aruba. He makes a small job of transposing the passion of soul music into a synthesized world, turning his army of electronics into delicate digital emotions.
Mostly, the Arp and Moog are used for color though, save for tracks like "Keep on Running" and "Girl Blue," where the role is more noticeable. The two can be seen as shades of Wonder's success with his experiments. "Keep on Running" wobbles about as Wonder's more extreme synthesizer workout, nearly seven minutes of driving electro-funk powered by his virtuoso keyboard skills. Perhaps not one of his finer moments, but it would certainly prove influential. It could be easily confused with a Giorgio Moroder disco production.
But "Girl Blue" is easily the more compelling of the two. It's easy to forget that Wonder is playing just about everything on the song, from the dripping synthesizers echoing his voice to the wandering drums bouncing off his clavinet stabs. And the harmonica, too. The vocals also suggest the use of a voice box with his Arp synth, also used liberally on "Love Having You Around." Overall, the song is more in line with where Wonder was going with all this stuff.
And then there are the ballads.
Of these, "Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You)" easily stands head and shoulder above the rest. It's like, you know, fucking amazing. At this point, people realized that Wonder was no longer suggesting brilliance. He had found it. It starts off conventionally enough but the song transforms at around the 3:30 mark and progresses into guitar solos and squelchy but evocative synth lines. Progressive yet forceful, the song easily ranks among Wonder's best.
"Sweet Little Girl," however, ranks much lower. Much, much, lower. But then it's not really a ballad. Obviously indebted to the influence his musical idol, Ray Charles, it feels like derivative, boppin' mediocre R&B compared to the rest of the album. One of Wonder's greatest assets is his vocal range, which can mimic the guttural swang of Charles as easily as the sucrose sweet twang of Sam Cooke. And while he puts the range to use here, the spoken word breaks bore and the harmonica is overworked and irritating.
The rest finds Wonder doing well. Nary an average track about, really. As "Evil" closes out the album with perhaps the most moving vocal performance of the album, it seems quite apparent that Music of My Mind is the beginning of a truly special something.
But there's really no words that can prepare to explain that something, nor much I could say to sum up Stevie Wonder's talent as a pop musician. You just have to bear witness to those things yourself. So I'll just leave you with the thought
Of a small