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Wonder's hear and tell for the press

October 01, 2005|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

It's an indelicate question to ask: Does a new Stevie Wonder album really matter?

Wonder is a dignified and wildly talented musician who recorded albums in the 1970s of such sublime accomplishment that he became an almost holy figure in pop culture. But that was a long time ago, and, for a man of just 55, Wonder has found himself busy lately collecting lifetime achievement awards.

The man himself is eager to prove he is a figure of the present, and earlier this week that led to the staging of a fascinating event. Journalists from around the world gathered in a plush theater on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank and (after nearly two hours of cooling their heels) in walked the musician who has more Grammy trophies on his mantel than any other solo pop star.

After a quick apology -- a murmur about a vague "family emergency" -- Wonder took a seat and explained that he had come to play all 15 songs off of his upcoming album, "A Time 2 Love," and, in the silences between, he planned to tell the story of the songs. The approach is not entirely novel (Kanye West, for instance, staged a similar "listening party" with lecture not long ago), but the stature of Wonder and the fact that he has worked for a decade on this one project gave the session a type of intrigue that is uncommon for similar promotional exercises.

Wonder opened with a preamble: "It's been an ongoing project. It's something I started 10 years ago.... It's something that has come from life experiences. The joy. The pains. The moments of sorrow. The moments of happiness."

That type of earnest spirit elevated 1970s Wonder albums such as "Innervisions" and "Songs in the Key of Life" to magical heights. But then that approach also gave his later work an airy, New Age polish, and songs such as "I Just Called to Say I Love You" scored great chart success but were skewered by critics for being closer to Hallmark commercials than Hall of Fame material.

The new album is a mix of the "different" Stevie Wonders. "Passionate Raindrops" and "Can't Imagine Love Without You" fall in line with the sounds of his more polished recent hits. "Please Don't Hurt My Baby" is a sharp-edged groove about an infidelity that threatens to capsize a husband's home life, and if it sounds like a throwback to the smokestack rhythms of the old days, there's good reason.

"I started working on this way back, a long time ago ... when I was 17 or 18 years old," Wonder said. "And I kept messing with it and messing with it." The final result got a strong reaction in the room for its musical tension and the appeal of its call-and-response between the illicit lovers. The album has other wild-card sounds: "Positivity," for example, sounds like a Jackson 5 song with its youthful perspective and infectious pop phrasing.

It's clear his label and circle of supporters expect this album to be a return to form. The album is not in stores until Oct. 18, but all 15 songs were made available this week as a download through iTunes, Napster, Yahoo! and other leading online music merchants. The unusual move was made in large part to ensure the music would be eligible for Grammy consideration this year.

Wonder never specifically answered the question of why the album took a decade to assemble, but in his musings he returned repeatedly to discussing the demands and pleasures of family (he has seven children, the youngest born just this May). He also flashed signs of a perfectionist's standard that is predicably steep. "I was never afraid to release this album," he said sharply at one point, making it clear he did not belong in the Axl Rose club of artists with vapor lock in the studio.

Most of the day, though, Wonder was beaming and cracking wise, at one point calling for a show of hands from anybody in the crowd who wanted to hear only snippets of songs and -- seeing none -- announcing that he would play all songs in their entirety.

Over the course of a decade he had plenty of outside influences to pull on. Besides noting that he has drawn on film, television and the press for sparks of inspiration, Wonder mentioned the names or work of Dr. Dre, Luther Vandross and Rodgers and Hart as shading specific tracks. The Dre influence as well as a possible nod to Lauryn Hill's music (which itself is clearly rooted in a fondness for Wonder's songbook) was apparent in the haunting orchestral work and vocal weaving on the album's layered opening track, "If Your Love Will Not Be Moved."

The album's arching theme is about love in its various permutations in a modern world that has darkened trapdoors at every turn. Wonder was candid in revealing his own painful tumbles. Before "Shelter in the Storm," for instance, Wonder's voice dropped to a near whisper as he described the terminal illnesses of his first wife, Syreeta Wright, and his brother, Larry Hardaway. They both died in the last two years.

He told Wright they would sing the song together when she recovered. "We never got a chance to do that," Wonder said.

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