Stevie Wonder: “I Wish”
I don’t feel like I need to say too much here about how important Stevie Wonder was in the 1970s. His songwriting was at a peak throughout that decade, and he was the dominant force on the R&B landscape and certainly one of the biggest acts in all of popular music. It was only when Michael Jackson rose to prominence in the ’80s that he began to be overshadowed.
Beginning to some degree with 1971’s Where I’m Coming From, but more accurately 1972’s Talking Book, through 1980’s Hotter Than July, Wonder earned a deserved reputation as one of music’s greatest songwriters. The term “musical genius” gets thrown around a lot for particular artists, and who’s to say what really qualifies, but if there are musicians who it should be used for then Stevie Wonder is certainly in that rank. His way with melodies and rhythms made it seem easy, but his songs were often deceivingly complex. One of the reasons why later songs like “I Just Called to Say I Love You” were so disappointing is that they were formulaic, sappy, and well below what he was capable of. That sappy songwriting gene was of course present in Wonder all along, and there are moments on many of his albums where I start to zone out just a bit when it comes into play, but he was always able at that point to do something more interesting with it and make it worthwhile. And of course there was the knowledge that just around the corner was always sure to be something intensely funky. He balanced the romanticism with the down-and-dirty well on all of those ’70s albums.
Smack dab in the middle of that stretch of classic albums, Wonder came out with the great double-album, Songs in the Key of Life, in 1976. Some consider it his masterpiece, and indeed its range and depth of music is extremely impressive. It brought all of his musical tendencies together in one sweeping display of master songwriting. The one song from that album that for me epitomizes what Stevie Wonder is all about is “I Wish.” It’s funky and melodic in equal measure. The introductory syncopated bass riff almost literally creeps up on you, dragging behind it Stevie’s dancing keyboard and fantastically rhythmic singing. The wailing horns add the icing to the cake. And the lyrics tell a wonderful story of his childhood reminiscences, looking back longingly on those carefree days gone by:
I wish those days could come back once more
Why did those days ever have to go?
Cause I love them so
The mood of the music fits the lyrics perfectly, joyously, and in the only way that Stevie Wonder knew how and that no one else could ever quite match.