Sunday 20 June 2021

Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants/ Stevie Wonder (1979): Albums of my Life: an A-Z

  hearing this album for the first time and finding it very different to the Stevie Wonder music I had previously been listening to. I found Stevie as an older teen and purchased a CD of some of his love songs. Interestingly, that gateway into Stevie's music had me hear slightly more obscure tracks than his chart hits, with 'Golden Lady', 'Ribbon in the Sky' and 'You and I' featuring as some of my faves. With this album, years ago I may have skipped through my CD copy to mine the tracks with Stevie's wonderful vocals (as opposed to the instrumentals which punctuate this album), but with hindsight, I needed to hear it as a whole piece of work. The joy of vinyl is that we do just that.

On original listenings, one of the tracks that always enchanted me was Come Back as a Flower featuring Stevie Wonder's ex partner, Syreeta Wright on vocals. Following this introduction to Syreeta, I went on to find more of her solo work. Her voice is exquisite-- the definition of sweet and effortless.

I was lucky enough to happen across a second hand vinyl of this wonderful concept album a few years ago, and its one of those LPs that I feel is a jewel in my collection. I also believe that its perhaps less well-known than some of Wonder's albums such as 'Songs in the Key of Life', 'Talking Book' and 'Innervisions' (I own these too-- and more-- of course!)

This experimental album is the soundtrack to 'The Secret Life of Plants' documentary by Walon Green (which, as I write, you can watch here). I actually only watched it this year and enjoyed it, especially the recognition of the scientists such as Jagadish Chandra Bose from Calcutta who presented his pioneering findings about plants in England and was rejected; and George Washington Carver, a black American scientist, again rejected based on racist attitudes of the time. The track Same Old Story is a fitting tribute to those brilliant minds who were never recognised in their own lifetimes.

The album was the second to be recorded digitally and made use of computer synthesizers, including the Computer Music Melodian. That, in itself, makes this an important album-- but also showcases Wonder's desire to break boundaries, experiment and have fun with his music. This is even more impressive to me when you think that he had a brief to fulfil with this album and knew that what he produced was being used on someone else's work.

The album does indeed take you on a journey with the song The Secret Life of Plants featuring in an instrumental early on in the album (as with Send One Your Love); moments of intense synth with perilous-sounding undertones; and then soulful moments such as the chilled out Power Flower and beautiful reverence of Black Orchid. Finale brings the album together so cutely. We get instrumentals of the tracks from the recording and it feels like being in a musical where you get the final number before the curtains come down and you have little tears in your eyes as you're hit with the spectacle of it all. 

On every listen I am struck by the absolute variety this album delivers in terms of sound. You could listen to the first track, Earth's Creation, and believe yourself to be entering some kind of sci-fi dystopia; then you might dip into later tracks like Send One Your Love and be greeted with Stevie's trademark romance and harmonica interlude.As a whole piece, it is only once you watch the documentary that you see some through line, and that, is perhaps what has baffled some critics. Others see this (rightly, in my opinion) as a richly diverse album with a sense of joy about it in its adventurous production.

1. Come Back as a Flower-- simply beautiful (another song featuring Stevie and Syreeta I recommend is Cause We've Ended as Lovers)

2. A Seed's a Star-- funky bass, Stevie clearly enjoying himself on vocals and some robot voice! What more could you want? The synths on this sound great.

3. The Secret Life of Plants-- how this is alluded to earlier on and then we hear the full 'hymn' near the end gives this eponymous track even more clout. "I can't conceive the nucleus of all begins inside a tiny seed": the way Stevie sings this radiates absolute praise and awe. Here we get to the heart of this album as we are faced with the Sublime of nature. 

... I want to zone out into another world and another time. It has a wonderful ability to shrink you down to size.

' For these are but a few discoveries we find inside the secret life of plants   ('The Secret Life of Plants')

... obviously green. A lush, tropical green with neon veins.

'Janet'/ Janet Jackson (1993)
'Juslisen'/ Musiq Soulchild (2002)
'Jinx'/Crumb (2019)

What is your favourite album beginning with J?

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