A journalist might have found themselves one autumn morning in 1976 eating a luxurious breakfast at Essex House before boarding a private jet to a farmhouse in Worcester, Massachusetts, to have a first-listen to Stevie Wonder’s masterpiece, Songs in the Key of Life. Wonder himself introduced the album, decked out in a cream-colored cowboy suit and hat, with a leather gun belt whose holsters were festooned with the cover art and the message “#1 WITH A BULLET.” Universally beloved, it shipped gold, entered the charts at No. 1, and stayed there until January of 1977.
When a journalist could next chat with Wonder, it was nearly three years later. They could just take the 2 train uptown to the New York Botanical Garden, where critics were instead served vegetarian fare as they listened to another double album, the follow-up to his magnum opus. Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants was years in the making, a soundtrack based on Walon Green’s documentary based on the bestselling book about how plants can be lie-detector tests, how the fern in your house reacts to your emotions, and how mustard seeds can communicate with distant galaxies.
October 1979 was a particularly auspicious month for double albums like Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk and the Who’s Quadrophenia soundtrack (Pink Floyd’s The Wall and the Clash’s London Calling would soon follow). Secret Life of Plants entered at No. 4 on the album charts its first week but quickly plummeted. After Wonder collected 12 Grammys in a four-year span, Secret Life of Plants only garnered one measly nomination. An incredibly ambitious tour—boasting over 60 musicians, singers, sound crew, staff, a computer to synchronize his synthesizers, a screen projecting scenes from the film, and a recording truck—hemorrhaged money and was truncated to six dates. Stevie couldn’t even sell out his hometown of Detroit.
Motown Record executives and fans alike did not know where to begin this Journey and critics were merciless. “May Be His Worst Yet,” read one headline. “More than being awful pieces of music, [they] reek of automation and transmit no sincerity,” went a review. Rolling Stone likened it to Karo syrup and called it “a strange succession of stunted songs, nattering ballads and wandering instrumentals,” while Robert Christgau equated it to “[an] anonymous Hollywood hack at their worst…ardently schmaltzy instead of depressingly schlocky.” The Village Voice equated it to “the painful awkwardness of a barely literate sidewalk sermon.”
It’s a reversal of fortune without equal in pop music. In nearly any appreciation of Stevie Wonder’s profound run of music, Secret Life of Plants serves as a page break, a bookend, the arid valley after the vertiginous peak of the beloved Songs in the Key of Life. In almost every assessment, it marks the end of the greatest run in pop music history. “If Alexander wept when there were no more worlds left to conquer,” critic Jack Hamilton said when Slate ran their “Wonder Week” feature, “Stevie happily composed 90 minutes of largely instrumental music for the soundtrack to a documentary about botany.”
Favoring slowness as well as quicksilver mood shifts, spare balladry and additive composition, acoustic guitars and two $40,000 Yamaha GX-1 synthesizers, whimsical experimentation and near invisible incremental movement, an album with six credits for “special programming of synthesizer” and Wonder with almost all other instrumentation, it’s a flummoxing and charming album wherein Wonder sings about seeds, leaves, and ecology as he himself embodies the traits of his botanical muse. The best insight into Plants may lie in the original Times review, where, in the midst of meditating on self-indulgence and Wonder’s sentimental mysticism, John Rockwell notes: “He has also managed to make an album that in its own idiosyncratic way may seem an oasis of peace and calm amid the bustle of the rest of the pop-music business.”
When Wonder accepted the challenge of providing a soundtrack for the documentary, even he was surprised: “I’d always figured if I did one it would be for a film that raised society’s consciousness about black people.” Originally, the film was to use a soundtrack made in part from plants with Wonder contributing “Tree” for the end of the picture. It didn’t fit with the rest of the film, but producer Michael Braun asked Wonder to instead score the entire film. So Wonder would go in with a four-track recorder and headphones. In the left channel was Braun explaining what was happening on-screen while engineer Gary Olazbal would count down the number of frames in the sequence in his right, leaving Wonder to sketch out the score.
Six studios would ultimately be used. It was only the second album to ever be recorded digitally (Ry Cooder’s Bop Til You Drop beat it by a few months) and the first album to use a sampler in the form of the rudimentary Computer Music Melodian, which perhaps explains the special thanks given to the air traffic controllers at Dallas-Fort Worth airport and the Los Angeles Zoo.
Its scope is difficult to convey, not just because a blind musician provided a soundtrack for a film that he himself could not see. Wonder probably saw about as much of the film as the general populace did, as The Secret Life of Plants never got a wide release in theaters and was never put out on VHS, DVD, or made available on streaming services. The opening movement of “Earth’s Creation” is ludicrously bombastic all on its own, full of Phantom of the Opera-style high-frequency shredding and chord-bludgeoning. With the film though, it pairs perfectly with intensely dramatic images of spuming lava, crashing tsunami waves, flapping seaweed, and dancing plankton. The first side of the album remains wildly uneven, but how else to convey the Godlike act of creation without being by turns chaotic, messy, lovely, whimsical, and a little cruel?
“The First Garden”—with its lullaby chimes, sampled bird songs and crickets, acoustic bass, and harmonica line (all played by Wonder)—provides the underlying motif of The Secret Life of Plants and it works magically with the time-lapse images of sprouting acorns, spores, and new shoots. And while “Voyage to India” might seem willfully exotic on the album, mixing together themes that appear later into an array of wineglass drones, symphonic strings, and sitar, it works with the film and its introduction of Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, the Indian polymath and botanist. Later on, Wonder folds in a Japanese children’s choir and a crackling duo of African kora and djembe drum.
It’s nearly 15 minutes into the album before Stevie Wonder’s voice appears, telling the story of both Bose and George Washington Carver on the plaintive “Same Old Story.” It scans as the first of many songs overtly about plants, as well as one of Wonder’s most forced biographical efforts. But the stories of Bose and Carver are far more painful than that. Bose was an Indian subject of the Queen, his work discovering the electrical nature of plants largely ignored by the Royal Society in London during his time. Across the ocean, the slave-born botanist Carver struggled most of his life to rise to the descriptor of “Black Leonardo.” But as brown- and black-skinned men—“Born of slaves who died,” as Wonder puts it—their genius was discounted and dismissed outright in white society. There’s a tactile resignation in the chorus: “It’s that same old story again.”
In exploring the neglected, ignored, seemingly inhuman aspects that society affixes to the plant kingdom, Wonder finds resonance between his botanical subject matter and the black experience. “A Seed’s a Star” states in its first line: “We’re a people black as is your night/Born to spread Amma’s eternal light.” Reaching back to the Dogon tribe of Africa and their worship of the distant star Sirius B, also referred to as “Po Tolo,” that name in their language signifies at once the immensity of that heavenly body as well as the smallest seed, a paradox that encompasses the interconnectedness of all life.
Stevie introduces many voices other than his own. Children’s voices and overheard conversations hover at the periphery of several songs. Wonder deepens the dimensions of the album with these intimate, everyday sounds, drawing correlations to childhood, memories, and the connections between people, not just between plants. It suggests that the album could seemingly arise out of anyone’s daily life. While the book and film could be esoteric, Wonder insisted that the album was in part about down-to-earth black life and love, telling The Washington Post that year that this music “comes just from my life.” Perhaps that’s why he had his ex-wife, Syreeta Wright, come to lend her soft vocals to the indelible piano ballad, “Come Back as a Flower,” wishing to spread the sweetness of love and envisioning “that with everything I was one.”
Human as it can be, The Secret Life of Plants is big and wide enough to be decidedly other, too, as when Wonder warps his platinum voice with a wide array of electronics. There’s the Brainfeeder funk of “Venus’ Flytrap and The Bug,” maybe the closest he ever got to the sound of his contemporary, George Clinton. And then there’s the femme falsetto he adopts to sing as Pan for one of Journey’s sweet delights, “Power Flower.” A woozy, low-key gem in the Stevie Wonder songbook (check the stretched taffy of his coos-and-drums solo 3:30 into the song) and one of Janet Jackson’s favorites, Wonder utilizes his synths to make himself sound something other than human.
That strange, neutered, warbling, alien voice that arises on the astonishing “Race Babbling” is as visionary a sound as anything Stevie ever created. It’s a techno odyssey that resembles the likes of Carl Craig and Juan Atkins and the hazy, ethereal feel of Solange’s When I Get Home (she explicitly credited this album’s influence on her own approach). In the context of the film’s collage of sped-up urban scenes, it even anticipates Philip Glass’ groundbreaking score for another nature documentary, Koyaanisqatsi. Unfurling, clenching, spiraling, and mutating across its nine minutes, it’s the longest song on the album and approaches the sort of gender destabilization of something like the Knife’s Shaking the Habitual. Wonder’s voice morphs and merges with the timbres of trumpet and saxophone (his manically high-pitched vocal hook is a freakish delight), and later blurs into the harmonies of Josie James until it’s hard to parse who is who. It’s a disorienting effect in more ways than one, a queering of the biggest African-American male pop star of the era that’s still without precedent.
Rather than attempt to carry on with Key of Life’s trajectory and his own heritage, Stevie had the rare cache to wander down every path, in effect making Motown his own private press label. No longer rooted to the traditions of soul, gospel or the sound of Motown that he built his legacy upon, Wonder literally branched out, reaching upward towards an undetermined new destination, exploring intuitively and fearlessly in a manner that few artists have ever managed to do in the history of pop music.
Buy: Rough Trade
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