Stevie Wonder’s influence as a vocal stylist has been monumental, and this iconic track is as good a place as any to appreciate that aspect of his wide-ranging musical talent. Even on the very surface there’s so much to marvel at. The speed and accuracy of his runs is simply astonishing, for instance. Remember that this was the early 70s, and while producers of the day were getting pretty nifty at vocal comping via manual punch-ins on tape (Wonder’s engineer Gary Olazabal talks about dropping in single syllables/consonants, for instance, when recording him a few years later in 1976.), there was nothing like the kind of creative/corrective editing that we’ve come to expect these days. And yet the superhuman fluidity and accuracy of Wonder’s run on “suffer” at 2:10 still puts 99% of current modern vocal productions in the shade!
The timbral range he covers is also impressive. Partly this is just a function of his exploring his pitch-register extremes, for example the reedy low tenor Eb that ends his first run on “suffer” at 1:13 and the ragged forced-falsetto of the soprano Eb and Gb at 2:28. But he’s also happy to push his vocals into distortion (eg. “Thirteen” at 3:00) or Satchmo-esque growl (“Super-” at 1:16) for extra emphasis at crucial moments, and casually intersperse his lyric lines with little expressive outbursts such as the humming at 3:03 and 3:18, or the speechy “no, no, no” at 3:34.
In my opinion, though, what really sets this performance apart from its legion of subsequent immitators is the sheer swagger with which he keeps so much of his remarkable virtuosity in reserve at the outset, so that he can continually increase the vocal fireworks to support the overall build-up of the song without ever seeming to run out of extra steam. Plenty of singers over the years have developed technical chops to rival Wonder’s, but vanishingly few can hold a candle to such masterful musical pacing.
But the reason I personally wanted to scrutinise this song further is that it’s one of my very favourite records from a rhythmic perspective – truly a funk work-out for the ages! And the first thing I uncovered was the intuitive way that its tempo profile supports the song’s structure. To explain what I mean, have a look at this little chart I’ve made, which shows the average tempo for each of the song’s eight-bar sections in order.
Firstly, you can see that the tempo rises from the verse, through the prechorus, and into the chorus in each case. But you’ll also notice that there’s a tempo drop into each verse as well, although never quite back to the original speed, which allows each sung verse, prechorus, and chorus can be a touch faster than its preceding iteration, but without the song ever accelerating totally out of control. In other words, this wave-like tempo profile not only adds shorter-term rhythmic urgency as you approach each chorus, but also builds longer-term momentum from each set of verse-prechorus-chorus to the next throughout the whole song.
I’m struck by how strongly this tempo-graph parallels the graph below, which I created years ago for my Mixing Secrets For The Small Studio book to illustrate some principles of long-term mix dynamics.
As with tempo increases, in mixing you’re always having to work within some kind of headroom restriction, so taking a similar wave-like approach to setting the subjective energy/intensity (or ‘Fantasticness’ as labelled on the graph!) of each mix section enables you to create a sense of build-up not only from verse/mid-section to chorus, but also from each verse/chorus iteration to the next through the song’s entire timeline.
But I also feel there’s another parallel between the rhythmic textures in this song and the qualities of a great mix. You see, much of the art of mixing is about contrast. You can’t create a decent sense of depth without including both foreground and background elements, for instance. And you’ll struggle to make any instrument sound truly bright unless you provide something dull in the mix for the listener to reference against. You’re also unlikely to get much subjective power or impact from your loudest mix sections if you don’t make use of softer sections to enhance the sense of dynamic range. In a similar vein, I think what really elevates the groove of this song is the way it contrasts its four-square rhythmic components with syncopations.
Take the song’s signature two-bar clavinet riff, for instance – the one that arrives at 0:10 on the right-hand side of the mix. Each bar alternates between a series of straight eights and a syncopated tail (typically accenting the last 16th note of beat three). Against that, though, is set a second subsidiary clavinet part (which properly enters on the left-hand side of the mix at 0:21) which heavily syncopates against the primary riff’s straight eighths (mostly via chained 3/16th stress-patterns), a model that’s subsquently taken up more rigidly in the prechorus by the bassline and main brass riff. And of course, all of that syncopation complexity is itself contrasted against the methodically pounding quarter-note pulse of the drums (and often the bass too).
And notice how the rhythmic contrasts shift during the first half of each chorus to add variety through the song’s timeline. All of a sudden the more sustained clavinets/brass texture becomes a lot more four-square during the oscillating series of two-beat chord changes, before the drums unleash an elaborate syncopated fill to underpin the song’s hook line – startlingly syncopated, in fact, given how generally straight the drum fills are in the song’s main groove.
But in addition to all this cleverness and complexity, I think the rhythmic feel of the whole project is also elevated immeasurably by being entirely a human performance – it’s another 10 years before the MIDI standard’s even created! And not just any old human performance, either, because everything but the horns was apparently overdubbed by Wonder himself.
Wonder by name…
At the end of the last year, while talking about how Sam Smith’s song 'Unholy' had used the comparatively unusual non-diatonic Phrygian Dominant mode, I pointed out that, although Smith had used both of the mode’s available major chords (the triads on the first and second scale degrees), he’d left its two minor chords untouched (the triads on the fourth and seventh degrees). So it’s great to see Kylie’s recent comeback hit upping the Phrygian Dominant ante by building the song around I, bII, and iv chords. And is that even a hint of vii too, in the second chorus at 1:33 and 1:49?
Another lovely detail here, however, is the way the lead vocal line deliberately skirts the scale’s most characteristic interval: the augmented second between the second and third degrees (the notes Db and E in this case). The chorus melody avoids it by simply remaining within a minor-sixth span from E up to C, but the verse takes a much more ear-catching approach, by temporarily sharpening the scale’s second degree to D instead of Db. Even though the Db is banished from the verse backing, the melody nonetheless retains a lovely shadow of harmonic false relation about it which I find very evocative.
But the thing that really blows me away with this production is the gorgeously sinuous and propulsive synth/sound-design work, especially because the song’s gradual build-up of textural complexity makes it possible for the ear to single out so many of its subtle layers for appreciation. Listen to the first half of the first chorus, for instance, and notice the ‘reverse breath’ sound that builds up to each clap backbeat; the musical variations in the hardness of the main synth riff’s attack; the modulating stereo-image width of the synth notes (the second and fourth eighth notes of each bar in particular usually seem wider); and the vocal-reverb gating on the first, second, fifth, sixth, ninth, and tenth snare hits. Then, we hit the second half of the chorus, with its opening electro-tom fill; the low growling vowel-like synth under the backbeat at 1:04; and some kind of vocoder-style effect on the vocals (most audible on “take me home” at 1:10). It’s a rich tapestry of human-injected organic detail than transforms what could easily have been a fairly pedestrian electronic groove into a living, breathing, rippling musical creature – something wonderfully fluid and dynamic in a genre sadly overpopulated with mechanical automatons.
The time-varying nature of so many of the sounds is also pivotal to the great sense of forward momentum on display here. A fabulous case in point is that warm-sounding rhythm synth that opens the song and underpins the first verse. Not only does the level-pumping immediately add a base-line rhythmic drive, but the sound is also constantly morphing in response to the musical structure, for example the slow increase in spectral density combined with a slow (band-pass?) filter sweep towards the start of the verse at 0:15, and then the little moments of extra brightness in the run-up to various verse downbeats, such as those at 0:18, 0:22, and 0:29.
This is the kind of magical production that seems to reveal new little sonic treasures with every new listen, generating an irresistable urge to just play it again and again and again. Speaking for myself, if I’d bought this on vinyl, I’d certainly have worn it out already!