1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die
Stevie Wonder never had a traditional "breakout" record because the spotlight was on him from his first Motown record at the age of 12. It wasn't until his tenth album (albeit still at the young age of 23) that he entered the critical apex of his career that is now referred as his "classic" period. Two elements are behind "Talking Book" being a dramatic step forward for Wonder from his previous releases.
For one, Wonder had made the Motown label a lot of money with his first eight albums (1972's "Music On My Mind" was the first of his "classic" albums) and he was looking to capitalize on it. Aside from guaranteeing him a higher royalty rate from his singles, a new contract with the label allowed Wonder full creative control over his recordings. As with most artists who gain such control, his tracks went from being obvious singles to more artistic statements. For Wonder, this didn't mean changing his instrumental approach too much. Although synthesizers complemented his usual keyboards, his lyrical approach made the true difference. Take for example "Big Brother," a harmonica-laced track that deals with the government as a 1984-style entity.
The main event influencing Wonder's lyrical approach to "Talking Book" was his divorce from singer and contributor Syreeta Wright. The political elements of "Big Brother" are an exception, as most of the album deals, appropriately, with the subject of love gone sour, such as "Maybe Your Baby" and "Tuesday Heartbreak." It's interesting to note that two of the album's most bitter (or bittersweet) tracks are the two Wonder wrote with Wright: "Blame It On The Sun" and "Lookin' For Another Pure Love" (which includes an excellent guitar solo from Jeff Beck).
It would be unfair to label "Talking Book" as a downer however, as it contains some of Wonder's most uplifting moments, including the classic "You Are The Sunshine of My Life." Wonder demonstrates on a number of tracks, most notably the incredible "Superstition," his firm grasp on funk. Wonder, who recorded nearly every instrumental on the album, combines the Hohner clavinet and Moog bass (probably the funkiest pairing of instruments ever) frequently (including "Superstition"), which makes even the least optimistic tracks worth dancing to.
The "full creative control" aspect of Wonder's new approach and his handling of various instruments including drums, guitars and keyboards is an impressive feat. As everyone knows, Wonder is blind, and many get caught up in praising him for his ability as a pianist. Don't forget to give him credit for every other instrument that he's proficient with.
INTERESTING FACT: Wonder won three Grammys for "Talking Book" in 1974: Best Male Pop Vocal Performance (for "You Are The Sunshine of My Life"), and Best Male R&B Performance and Best R&B Song (for "Superstition"). The award for Best Album, however, went to another one of his records, "Innervisions."