Side By Side: The Art of Sequencing - Songs in the Key of Life

by Jeff Fiedler

It’s typically hailed as the best album Stevie Wonder ever made (though Innervisions occasionally outranks it in polls of the all-time greatest albums), but what tends to get overlooked in discussion on the tour de force that is Songs in the Key of Life is just how perfectly sequenced the disc is. It’s so well-designed, in fact, that the double album really loses something when you stream it or listen to it on CD, and to truly and fully experience the artistic brilliance of this album, you really need to listen to it on vinyl. It’s not just that the individual sides work as pieces of art in and of themselves, though this is certainly true. In its original vinyl incarnation, Wonder had the additional clever structural concept to separate the last four songs from the rest of the record and release them via a four-song, seven-inch EP (nicknamed “A Something's Extra”) to tuck inside the album jacket as a bonus.  

The album’s appealing seven-minute opening track, “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” could not be more perfectly placed, its opening line (“Good morn or evening, friends / Here’s your friendly announcer …”) serving as a fitting opening line for the album as a whole. The plea for compassion is fittingly followed by the album’s most religious song (“Have a Talk with God”) and one of its most socio-political tracks (“Village Ghetto Land”). Lest the mood get too serious or heavy, Wonder cleverly shifts to the lone instrumental cut on the two LPs (and the first cut on the album to feature an actual band in lieu of Stevie playing all the instruments), the jazz fusion of “Contusion,” then fittingly and playfully follows that track – and closes Side One – with “Sir Duke,” his brass-heavy tribute to jazz legend Duke Ellington and one of two Number One hits to hail from this album. [If the title doesn’t sound familiar, that may be because it only pops up fleetingly in the first verse, while the actual chorus goes, “They can feel it all over / They can feel it all over, people.”] 

Wonder retains the playful mood – as well as the four-piece brass section – on the opening cut of Side Two, the funky – and actually quite underrated – Number One hit “I Wish,” before transitioning into the gentle, mellow pop of “Knocks Me Off My Feet,” featuring some clever drum fills from Stevie, who plays all the instruments on the cut. It might seem like a weird transition on the surface to go from such a sweet love song to a more sociopolitical piece, but the gentle sway of the synthesized strings throughout “Pastime Paradise” – later sampled on Coolio’s chart-topping Dangerous Minds soundtrack contribution “Gangsta’s Paradise” – actually makes the segue work quite surprisingly well. From there, Stevie wisely dials it back down for the mellow love song “Summer Soft.” “Ordinary Pain” is a perfect closer for the album’s second side, starting in soft fashion before circling back around to funk territory for the song’s slippery, wormy second half, which is sung by Shirley Brewer and unexpectedly turns the lyric upside down to present a female counterpoint.

At this point, if you’re simply streaming the album Online, the transition into what is actually the third side is admittedly very jarring, but if you’re listening to the disc the way it was intended, in the form of album sides, it’s nothing short of brilliant, Wonder casting off the ominous tone of “Ordinary Pain” and opening the second disc quite literally with a new birth, the cries of a newborn opening the jubilant soul of the baby-themed “Isn’t She Lovely,” which you may be surprised to realize was never actually released as a single, although that hasn’t prevented it from becoming a radio favorite and one of Wonder’s trademark tunes. From there, it’s a natural transition to the equally happy balladry of “Joy Inside My Tears.” Since both of these cuts top the six-minute mark, and Wonder has held off since the album’s first side from doing anything too overtly topical or serious, the remaining grooves on the third side mark the perfect spot for Wonder to round out the third side by unleashing the eight-and-a-half-minute history-lesson funk of “Black Man.”

Cleverly, from there, the album’s fourth side opens with the vibrant, synth-heavy “Ngiculela-Es Una Historia-I Am Singing,” which starts off with Stevie singing in Zulu, then in Spanish, and finally in English. The harp-driven ballad “If It’s Magic” sounds right at home in the next slot on the disc, and then Stevie closes out the official album portion of the package with two seven-minute-plus epics, wisely beginning with the mellow, jazzy soul of “As” and then closing with the carnivalesque Latin-flavored vibe of “Another Star.” (Both of these songs were deservedly Top 40 hits, though hardly anybody ever remembers that, since neither one pops up on the radio much these days.) It’s an emotionally powerful way to round out the fourth and final proper side and the album as a whole.

Now, if you’re listening to the CD, the listening experience is really dampened at this point, as only a short space separates the end of “Another Star” from the four cuts that hail from the package’s bonus EP.  Listened to on vinyl, however, changing the disc gives you time to absorb and appreciate the emotional impact of the final tracks on the proper album, and the disc doesn’t seem quite so anticlimactic. As it turns out, Wonder made a great move in separating these four songs from the rest of the package. They’re not bad songs (“Saturn,” co-written with Michael Sembello, who’d later become a solo star and score a Number One hit with the Flashdance theme “Maniac,” is, in fact, a real knockout, while “All Day Sucker” is one of the meanest slices of funk Stevie ever cut and “Easy Goin’ Evening” the perfect soundtrack to the end of a lazy Sunday), but none of them really would have fit particularly well within the context of the four proper album sides and function much better as bonus-EP cuts. [Be sure if you buy a used copy of the original vinyl that the EP is still intact, because it is truly quite a fun listen in its own right, and the Key of Life listening experience isn’t quite the same without it. It can periodically be found on its own in 45 bins, but usually not in the best of condition, so your best luck at finding a clean copy is to look for one that hasn’t been separated from the rest of the package.]