The legendry musical highway of Motown is actually a tricky one to navigate. What looks on the surface as one of modern music’s most inviting spring meadows, masks a lot of nettlesome vines that have to be judiciously dissected in order to picnic amidst the beauty of a bounty of solid-gold hits. On the one hand, its founder, Berry Gordy, gave an army of struggling black artists a start and supporting foothold from which to flourish, and in the process, he imparted the world with an array of superb soul-pop anthems on a list as long as a road to Rome, and yet his legacy is far from straightforward.
Gordy ruled Motown with an iron fist and all of those gilded pieces of musical perfection often came at the expense of progress and politics. Ultimately, his hit crafting method proved a little too constricting by the time the sixties really got swinging and slipped into the conscious glare of the seventies. Stevie Wonder’s classic album Where I’m Coming From foreshadowed the end of Motown and heralded in a new age that Marvin Gaye would also crystalise with What’s Going On, released only months apart in what is arguably the greatest year in music, 1971.
Often the backstory of an album can get in the way of the work itself, but when it comes to Where I’m Coming From, the genesis is inseparable from the art that followed. Bafflingly, Stevie Wonder was only 21 when it was released 50 years ago today, on April 12th 1971, and yet somehow it was his 13th studio album. For context, Daft Punk recently split after 28 years together during which time they released four studio records. Wonder’s prolific childhood output is symptomatic of the way that Motown worked. Gordy recognised that the key to his label’s success was dominating the radio waves and as such he instilled in his artists a need to churn out a constant stream of radio-friendly singles. The result of this practice was so prolific and precise in its gold-plated output that it spawned a genre title of its own.
This single churning method is characterised by the fact that up until Wonder and Gaye made a stand in the ‘70s, very few Motown albums can be said to be classics, they were a label that traded in singles and in many ways the world was thankful for that. The issue, of course, is that a hit single has to appeal to the masses, it has to be succinct and it most certainly has to be radio-friendly. In the process, the Motown juggernaut squashed creative individualism by making artists seem like they were part of some corporate machine.
The sixties was an overwhelming force of its own, it hurtled towards the future in a cacophonous mass of accelerated liberalism, movements and mayhem. It was travelling so fast that certain creatively stagnating Motown artists felt it was leaving them behind. They saw their contemporaries making musical waves, kicking up a commotion that called for change and prophesied a brighter future through poignantly artistic visionary works. All the while, they were stuck making the same songs about lovers and dancefloors and essentially ‘working for the man’. This issue was that those lovesongs were usually unquestionably brilliant. Thus, it can’t be ignored how truly bold and brave a stance it was when Wonder defiantly barnstormed the independent artistic milieu of the seventies and made a masterpiece.
Stevie Wonder felt the need to get away from friendly singles and dive headfirst into an album that allowed him to fully explore social consciousness, join the civil rights movement and feel the balm of creative freedom. Three years earlier, For Once in My Life had heralded a transition, but it was now that the removal of the gloves finally came to fruition.
Owing to a clause in Wonder’s contract he was able to void the condition of Motown’s creative control when he became a legal adult on his 21st birthday. He seized upon this opportunity and never looked back.
Along with his first wife Syreeta Wright, Wonder took to the studio knowing that Motown would have to accept anything that he submitted. What followed was a sequestering of the apolitical pleasantry that he had been reared on and in its place was songs about war, racialism, and a slew of jives at Gordy for his tight-fisted control. Wonder was determined to have his say and “take [his] share!” and when he did, it proclaimed a forthcoming purple patch that went down in history as “Stevie Wonder’s perfect run”.
However, as history is written by the winners, what now goes down as the heralding of a seismic sequence of soul-pop superlatives, was initially somewhat of a flop. It peaked at 62 in the US Billboard Charts and, despite a lukewarm reception, on the whole, certain prominent critics of the time referred to it as “pretentious”, “undistinguished” and “untidy”.
Listening back the only one of those descriptives with a grain of truth is that perhaps it isn’t the most neatly sutured piece of work that the star ever produced. There is a slight notion of feet-finding detectable in the smorgasbord of soul, funk and gospel on display. However, we’re also dealing with a 21-year-old hurriedly leaving the past behind and foraging into an uncertain path of his own, and that imbues the shortcomings of the album with emboldened defiance, sanguine spiritualism and a sense of historical importance. These qualities are not just seen through the glossy-eyed hue of hindsight either, even upon release it was clear that this was a young Motown artist making a stance. What really makes it a success, however, is that it retains all the structured songsmithery that made Motown so beloved in the first place. In this respect, it is ironically the perfect send-off to the label that brought so much to the party, including a nettlesome asterisk as a plus one.