- The Washington Times - Monday, October 17, 2005

Stevie Wonder

A Time to Love


With “A Time to Love,” his first album of new material in more than a decade, Stevie Wonder has large shoes to fill — his own.

A creative streak in the 1970s and ‘80s produced several groundbreaking albums — “Music of My Mind” and “Talking Book” (both from 1972), “Innervisions” (1973), “Fufillingness’ First Finale” (1974), “Songs in the Key of Life” (1976), “The Secret Life of Plants” (1979) and “Hotter Than July” (1980). Mr. Wonder finished out the latter decade with good but less significant fare, including “Original Musicquarium” (1982) and the soundtrack for the Gene Wilder comedy “The Woman in Red” (1984).

By the ‘90s, though, he was mostly coasting on his laurels, composing another soundtrack (for Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever” in 1991) and releasing the forgettable “Conversation Piece” in 1995. Other than a few anthologies, Mr. Wonder has been mum since then.

Much has changed in the world and the record business, but Mr. Wonder’s music has not.

Though “Love” is a respectable effort, it’s hardly Mr. Wonder’s best, and it likely will be regarded as a collector’s item for Wonder completists.

In the pre-release hype surrounding “Love,” due in stores today after repeated delays, the album was billed as a thematically unified meditation on the four-letter word in its diverse connotations, from romantic liaisons to more grandiose visions of world peace and spirituality.

However, unlike “Songs,” “Fufillingness” and “Innervisions” — whose themes of life and love ran throughout each work — in “Love” the 15 tracks feel disjointed. The only unifying element is the drum cadence on its upbeat opening selection (the spunky hip-hop-influenced “If Your Love Cannot Be Moved,” featuring vocalist Kim Burrell) and the album’s closing and forgettable title track (with neo-soul singer-songwriter India.Arie).

There are a few bright spots. Mr. Wonder’s vocals soar on “My Love Is on Fire,” and he adds his signature harmonica to the bluesy “Tell Your Heart I Love You.” “From the Bottom of My Heart,” a mellow old-school ballad that has received limited airplay since its release as a single this summer, is destined to become a staple on the wedding-reception circuit. Similarly, the uplifting “Shelter in the Rain,” co-produced by gospel music superstar Kirk Franklin, will find a spot in the church-choir repertoire.

Still, there are missteps. The mellow bossa nova rhythms of “Sweetest Somebody I Know” quickly dissolve under the chorus of cooing toddlers that Mr. Wonder adds at its end. Other tunes — such as “Moon Blue” and “Please Don’t Hurt My Baby,” an uptempo ditty that rails against infidelity — are undermined by the trite doggerel of their lyrics. “You shoulda thought about that boy/Before you were usin’ it like a toy,” scold the female backing voices on “Baby.”

Mr. Wonder also is guilty of rehashing old sounds — both his own and those of others. “Passionate Raindrops,” complete with an arpeggio string sequence,bears more than a passing resemblance to “Rocket Love” from 1980’s “Hotter Than July.” The funky bass lines on “So What the Fuss” (featuring Prince on guitar) makes it nearly a dead ringer for George Duke’s “Dukey Stick” from 1978.

On “Love,” Mr. Wonder appears to be finding his sea legs after a self-imposed decade-long hiatus. It’s a promising return. But when writing about affairs of the heart — especially alongside today’s A-list stars such as John Legend, whose poignant lyrics on “Ordinary People” will likely net a Grammy nomination for song of the year — he’ll definitely need to step up his game.

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