Stevie Wonder happily belongs to the world, so one feels cheap complaining about the sentimental sappiness that characterized his output in the 1980s and ’90s; or, at least, cheaper than one does when complaining about cogenerationists like Rod Stewart and Sir Paul, whose sappiness is contrived.
Whatever you say about Stevie, you know he has convictions — about world peace, social injustice and especially the objects of his desire past and present. Comfortably ensconced in middle age, he doesn’t push nostalgia for an idealized musical past since he still lives there in his mind — which is the only explanation I can think of for how he can come up with the kind of killer melodies that overflow on his first new album in 10 years.
Though sap runs through the whole 77-minute record, you don’t register it until the truly mawkish track 8 because up to that point the tunes are so classic: “Please Don’t Hurt My Baby” is prime ’70s Motown funk, while “From the Bottom of My Heart” is surely entering heavy rotation at your local karaoke emporium while you read this. And as the album coasts to its epic why-can’t-we-all-get-along finish you get so caught up in his bullet-proof “positivity” that the sentimentality feels natural. If anyone can make love cool again, it’s Stevie.