A Time To Love
ike Bryan Ferry, Stevie Wonder has been worshipping at the altar of love for so long that he’s forgotten that Eros likes his faithful to bump ‘n’ grind once in a while. “Long” is the operative word: it’s been more than 10 years since Wonder’s last album—the charming, inconsequential album Conversation Piece—and the charming, inconsequential A Time To Love is a long one, as in fifteen songs, most averaging five minutes. How long, o Lord, how long?
Since Wonder is one of the few artists who remains infectious whether getting his groove on (he’d invite us to join him if he wasn’t having such a good time) or pillaging his catalogue, A Time To Love has its rewards. “Please Don’t Hurt My Baby” steals its clavinet hook from Wonder’s long-forgotten collaboration with Paul McCartney, “What’s That You’re Doin’?” and the horns from “I Wish.” The Jackson 5-wannabe “Positivity” features Wonder flinging tricky rhymes with little of the mellifluous grace of his balladeer voice (although the allusion to the long-dead Minnie Ripperton of “Loving You” fame, is touching), but it’s sassy and PG-rated in the best possible way. However, “So What The Fuss,” leaked on the Internet months ago, is something else: an effortless ode to don’t-worry-be-happy, decorated with car horns, the primitive whack of Wonder’s own drumming, and yummy guitar licks played by a fellow erotician by the name of Prince.
As long as Wonder is producing and laying down basic arrangements himself, he’ll never be awful, which is a shame: like any lifelong charmer, he can stand to be more vulgar, or show some teeth, damn it. Too many of the smoochers aim for immortality without showing a little humility (“Moon Blue” and “From The Bottom of My Heart”). Others proceed down the well-worn path of predecessors like “If It’s Magic” and “Ribbon in the Sky”: if you want’em, take’em. Wonder may be more sheerly likeable than many of the certified fiftysomething geniuses which score three-star reviews regularly in major publications, but like erstwhile partner McCartney, he needs someone telling him when he’s written pedestrian shit, not just to call him to say I love you.
A liberal of the old school, privy to the consolations offered by New Age platitudes, Wonder hasn’t changed since he discovered Sgt Pepper, and it shows; this is a guy for whom exoticism means using tablas and India.Arie on the title track. But Wonder’s ingenuous one-world sentiments are apotheosized into truth by the strength of his melodic gifts (which haven’t failed him yet) and a voice that’s still sweet and grainy when it needs to be. Both virtues get a workout on yet another duet “If Your Love Cannot Be Moved,” in which synth strings slice the vaguely Indian motif around which Wonder and Kim Burrell coo and growl threats that both of them are too nice to follow through on. Frustrating, yes, and beautiful. He’ll never learn. Neither will we.