Stevie Wonder is, as we all know I’d hope, A MUSICAL GENIUS! But this is where he absolutely runs out of juice I think. As rum as his 1980s was overall this is the nadir. This is the album where he sounds bored and desperate to be relevant – the curse of the `1980s upon so many of the stars from the 1960s and 70s.
I’ve had a love/hate relationship with this album since I first heard it. I didn’t want to believe that Stevie had failed. I could forgive him his cheesiest pop hits (I Just Called To Say I Love You, Ebony and Ivory) well, it wasn’t even about forgiving – I could see they’d been written for a reason, to be successful. And they were. As awful as we might all think they are someone bought them. But the songs on Characters are weak and lack exactly that. There’s no real character to this album at all.
I’ve bought and sold this album twice and thinking about it and listening to it again to prepare this I’m thinking once more that I should really own a copy on vinyl (it’s a sickness, there’s no real cure).
I don’t know why, but I’ve always been interested in the failures in a career where it seems like there’s nothing but home-runs. I love the home-runs. I’m there for the home-runs. I’m there all day and every day for the albums Stevie Wonder made between 1970 and 1976. I love some of the ones he made between 1964 and 1970 and I love a couple of the ones he made after 1976. Three at a pinch. But I can’t work this one out. Which is why I return to it.
It might truly be the only actual dud of his career.
But dud is relative. There were hit singles. There was interest. There was huge guest stars – his biggest. All because of who he was and who he had been up to and including this point in time.
Stevie Wonder in the mid-80s was the crossover king. Duets with Beatles, drunk-drive campaigns, songs for films and still a direct link to Motown’s heyday.
But it pretty much stops here.
Although, if you cherry pick it doesn’t seem so bad.
Skeletons was one of the singles. And you can see why. It’s an attempt to trace around the funk of a decade and a half earlier. And it’s got one foot in the camp (pardon the pun, perhaps) of the hip-hop/R’n’B of the time as well as the pop-radio song-staples.
It gets a tick. It’s an inferior brand of funk. But just as jazz was dead in the 1980s, funk was very much on life support.
They tried hard to sell this – a full length MTV showcase where Stevie Ray Vaughan (a guest from the album) joined Stevie Wonder to do duelling versions of their own renditions of Superstition (or something?!)
The CD version (which I also owned, and jettisoned) has this okay-song where SRV and B.B. King both appear. It’s better than most of the tunes on the vinyl-version of the album.
I can’t sell this more than I already haven’t but I remain strangely perplexed by it. Because it is the single failure in one of the greatest musical careers I know. So I keep checking in on it. Hoping its improved in some way. Throwing a bone to a new song from this old dog. Still shaking my head at its irrelevance and my need to feel connected to it in some way.