Has there ever been a better 10-track album than Stevie Wonder’s 1972 masterpiece Talking Book? A rhetorical question, of course, as nobody will agree on this one. But, bookended by the joyful You Are The Sunshine Of My Life and the ecstatic I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever), Talking Book is a wonderful collection of songs without a false note.
The album has resonated throughout the following decades. It’s a milestone in that it was one of the first records that took a soul artist, in this case the boy musical genius who became the shiniest of jewels in the Tamla Motown crown in the 1960s, and introduced him to a rock audience who stacked the album on the shelf in between Mike Oldfield and Jethro Tull.
That crossover between soul and rock is exemplified by the guest appearance of British guitar legend Jeff Beck, whose lovely liquid solo on Lookin’ For Another Pure Love is one of Talking Book’s many highlights.
Talking Book is also not quite what it seems. The title of I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever) is cruelly ironic given that Wonder, born Stevland Hardaway Judkins in 1950, had just split from his partner Syreeta Wright. It is a record about love but, after the opener You Are The Sunshine Of My Life, it is also about loss.
The album, his 15th studio recording, reaches its saddest point with Blame It On The Sun. What could be more poignant than a blind man who is in the throes of a break-up singing:
But I’ll blame it on the sun
That didn’t fill the sky
I’ll blame in on the birds and the trees
Except that the writer of this song is not the man who can never see the sun. It is Syreeta herself who also writes the lyrics for the next track, Lookin’ For Another Pure Love, which has another heartbreaking line…
All my days before today were happy
And secure before your phone call
You were tellin’ me goodbye
So Talking Book is not just an artist’s confessional album, it is both people confessing about their break-up. Blame It On The Sun is dominated by Stevie’s piano and moog synthesiser. The instruments and Stevie’s wistful voice give the song a keening quality that makes it so sad.
Where has my love gone?
How I can I go on?
It seems dear love has gone away
Where is my spirit?
I’m nowhere near it
Oh yes, my love has gone astray
The song, with its hymn-like quality, builds up into its crescendo and ends with a female voice and the line that stops the listener in their tracks…
Your heart blames it on you this time
It is not Syreeta but one of the album’s backing singers Lani Groves. It is Groves and a male singer Jim Gilstrap who bouncily duet in You Are The Sunshine Of My Life, a song that was to become a BBC Radio 2 staple and covered by a host of singers from Frank Sinatra to Ella Fitzgerald. But where Groves and Gilstrap were lighthearted on one of Stevie’s most upbeat and joyous songs, Blame It On The Sun was never destined to become a supper club standard.
Nor is it commercial in the way of Superstition, with its mesmerising, chugging clavinet riff, or political like Big Brother, an angry song featuring his brilliant chromatic harmonica playing, that might have found a way on to Innervisions, his next album.
Innervisions the following year was the third of a trinity of albums that burst out of Stevie as a result of him renegotiating his contract with Motown and gaining the freedom to be more creative in the studio. Wonder, Marvin Gaye and The Temptations were now writing and singing more socially-aware songs that chimed with their troubled times. But Blame it On The Sun is at the heart of an album that is arguably the finest of that trinity, begun a few months before Talking Book with Music Of My Mind.
‘Here is my music. It is all I have to tell you how I feel. Know that your love keeps my love strong,’ says Wonder on the cover of Talking Book, with its haunting photograph of this extraordinary man in an African robe, lost in thought. Listening to the album now, 46 years after its release, it is impossible not to laugh and not to cry.