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Friday, October 14, 2005

Signed, Sealed, Delivered . . . and Just 10 Years Later - New York Times

Signed, Sealed, Delivered . . . and Just 10 Years Later - New York TimesOctober 16, 2005
Signed, Sealed, Delivered . . . and Just 10 Years Later

IT'S hardly worth noting that Stevie Wonder is several hours late. Granted, he has a compelling reason - the fires burning outside Los Angeles have come so close to his house that he has had to evacuate. But waiting for Mr. Wonder is one of pop music's grandest traditions. The release this week of "A Time to Love" ends the longest wait yet: it has been a decade since he last put out an album full of new material.

For Mr. Wonder, 55, the music always determines the schedule, not the other way around. "You set a goal in your mind," he said over the phone from his recording studio, "and you say, O.K., this is what these songs need to have, this project needs to have, and you don't really settle for anything less than that."

As he tells it, this time the key was a single phrase. He had been noodling with a piano fragment, until one day the words "a time to love" popped into his head. "When I came up with that title," he said, "I knew what I would use and what I would not. That was maybe three or four years ago."

Most of his vocals were completed last year, he said, leading to the first round of rumblings that the album would finally see light of day. He was still tweaking the music until last month, though: altering mixes, adding a female vocal part, dropping a track from back in the "Songs in the Key of Life" era. Call it perfectionism or procrastination, but ever since the radical act of taking control of his own writing and production in 1972, he has obstinately, often brilliantly, followed his own muse - and his own timetable.

After 10 years away, Mr. Wonder has not lost his unparalleled sense of melody; the album returns him to looser, more elastic rhythms than the mechanized thud that marred much of his music in the 90's. He even got back behind a drum kit. "There were always people going, 'Hey, Stevie, why don't you play drums like you did on 'Innervisions'?" he recalled, "And I'd say, 'Man, that was back then, leave me alone!' But I went back and listened, and I said, 'You know what? They've got a point.' "

In the 42 years since "Fingertips, Part 2," the first No. 1 single from Little Stevie Wonder, Mr. Wonder has had 32 singles top the charts and won a record 19 Grammy Awards. Even in his absence, he has loomed large. Artists from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Phish cover his songs, and his magnificently yearning, filigreed vocal style echoes through two generations of singers, recently including John Legend, Alicia Keys and Maroon5's Adam Levine.

"He really changed the way that people sing," said Bonnie Raitt, who played slide guitar on "Tell Your Heart I Love You," a track on the new album. She added that R&B can be divided into two eras: "Before Stevie and After Stevie."

But the After Stevie era has been long. It has been a full 20 years since he has had an album or a single in the Top 10 of the pop charts, and the "more organic" sound that he said he sought on his new album is not an obvious fit with post-hip-hop radio. "It's going to be an uphill battle, definitely," said B. J. Stone, director of R&B programming at Sirius Satellite Radio. "There's a lot of anticipation because he's such a genius, but I don't think he really locked up the pulse of music right now."

Nor does it help that "A Time to Love" has been cranked up for release several times before. "There was a temporary lack of confidence that we were going to put it out," Sylvia Rhone, president of Motown Records, said. "But when everybody saw that it was for real this time, they all came in."

Judging from the credits on "A Time to Love," most musicians will still drop whatever they're doing for the chance to work with Stevie Wonder. Prince, India.Arie, the gospel superstar Kirk Franklin and the human beat-box Doug E. Fresh all turn up, and Paul McCartney (with whom Mr. Wonder recorded the duet "Ebony and Ivory" in 1982) added his guitar to the sprawling title song.

Sir Paul may be Mr. Wonder's lone rival as the foremost melody writer of the rock era, but Mr. Wonder said that another Beatle had inspired him this time. "I was listening to the 60's channel on XM," a satellite radio service, "and I heard 'All You Need Is Love,' " he said. "I realized how much I really loved John Lennon, and the hard place that he had in his lyrics. He and Bob Marley were incredible lyricists of reason, of things that made sense and gave people a place and purpose."

Mr. Wonder expressed special pride in the words he wrote for this album. "I think I've grown as a lyricist," he said. "I think, for instance, that 'Passionate Raindrops' " - another track on the album - "is a different kind of lyric; it's very picturesque. I can see everything that I'm writing, I can visualize all those things happening."

Mr. Wonder is, of course, blind, perhaps the most famous blind man alive, but he speaks of visualization unself-consciously, as just one of the many tools at his disposal as a musician. He is more deliberate when talking about humanitarian work, his other great legacy. He is one of the most tangible remaining links to the civil rights era. Now, as the father of seven, including a newborn, he remains committed to numerous causes and charities. He said that he had been talking to Steven P. Jobs, the founder of Apple Computer, about making the iPod more accessible to blind listeners. When the sweeping ballad "Shelter in the Rain" took on new meaning after Hurricane Katrina, he earmarked all proceeds from that track for relief efforts. "He stands above as a cultural figure," Ms. Raitt said, "above partisanship and above reproach."

As for the songs on "A Time to Love," they stand more or less above direct confrontation, which is surprising for the writer of such scathing social commentary as "You Haven't Done Nothing" and "Living for the City." The bulk of the album consists of straight-ahead love songs, and the messages on "So What the Fuss" and "Positivity" focus on empathy and personal responsibility. (A more full-throated protest song titled "Judgment Day" would, he said, likely turn up as a bonus cut on the Japanese release of the album.)

Despite the tone of his songs, his feelings about the state of the world don't seem to have softened. "There's an evil spirit that lurks among us," he said. "It's present in a different way now, a product of those things that we left undealt with, unresolved."

He continued: "But I'm really not angry, I'm saddened, I'm disappointed, but I'm trying to do the best I know how to do. And I'm encouraging everyone else to do their best, give the love you have in your spirit, because I think that people are beginning to see the consequences of what they do or don't do."

Motown went through three presidents during the making of "A Time to Love," and Mr. Wonder is approaching the release of the album as a test. "I have been committed to a record company that was the brainchild of an African-American man from Detroit," he said, referring to the label's founder, Berry Gordy Jr. "And for as long as they handle their business with my stuff, then I'll be there. Now we're going to see how they do."

Ms. Rhone said that the real challenge from her end was getting him to turn in the album. "We've been working on a huge marketing plan that has evolved over a full year," she said. "We're so well prepared, so anxious to execute, that getting to the market is the fun part." She described Mr. Wonder as "the cornerstone of the Motown label."

Indeed, Mr. Wonder is the only Motown star still left from the label's historic 60's roster. Today the company is better known as a repository for nostalgia than as a label that breaks new acts. "For those who own Motown, I'm sure the legacy is in the catalog, and I can understand that," he said. More than four decades after he made his debut, he has clearly given some thought to these issues. "But the untold legacy has got to be in the future," he said, in "what's happening right now, rather than the past."

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