Another of the newly published books in the series is Songs in the Key of Life by Zeth Lundy. Here’s an extract from Part IV of the book, “Death”.
Wonder saw it all before it happened: his premature death, incomplete and inconclusive, as inexplicable as it was imminent. He began receiving fatal premonitions in early 1973; they drove him to write and record faster, his own legacy lingering at the mercy of some undefined mortal terror. “He sees the earth zigging towards a destructive end,” Ben Fong-Torres wrote in his introduction to a 1973 Rolling Stone interview with Wonder. “He can see himself dying soon.”
Songs had become urgent messages of intuition and forewarning: “Higher Ground,” for example, was foisted on him in a blink, some kind of spiritual transmission he received without warning. It’s a lightning bolt of apocalyptic rock and roll, its consecrated ideology ensconced in its cocksure rhythm, glimpses of the hereafter and reincarnation prancing in its clavinet-saturated head. This is how pop music becomes prophecy, how something designed to compel your ass into motion is, in fact, a psychological conspiracy. That arguably the greatest single song of the 70s offers up gooey mortality in the center of its compositional confection is a triumph of a futurist mind.
His edgy intuition reached a critical mass on Songs, which augments the burning personal crises to those of the world-at-large. On the first LP alone, four songs – “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” “Have a Talk With God,” “Village Ghetto Land” and “Pastime Paradise” – are fueled by a looming sense of ruin that must be avoided at any cost, visions of destructive futures that require immediate attention to remedy. They’re nowhere near as urgent-sounding as “Higher Ground,” because they are a few years removed from that initial onset of existential panic; when addressing the fragile mortality of an anxious public, it’s best not to make sudden, shrieking movements toward the few available exits.
Even as the 70s towered over the premature corpse of idealism, rock and roll and R&B thought of death from a distance. There was the occasional gutsy confrontation – the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” or Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” – but bands and artists were trafficking in the sound of death (see Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On) more than speaking freely of its undeniable presence. Mayfield’s “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go” was a frighteningly funky tune that sat in the driver’s seat of the bus on the road to the end of the world. Wonder’s “Higher Ground” acknowledged Mayfield’s resigned terror, but also looked for the way to make something optimistic out of a horrible situation. It was juiced with the potential of a redemptive consciousness – an afterlife, a parallel universe, an alternate reality, anything that strung a silver lining on death’s cloud.