Having been repeatedly delayed since its original release date in the summer of 2004 – and nearly a decade in the works had it even made that deadline – A Time to Love can objectively lay claim to the designation “long-awaited.” Yes, this is a cold comfort to Stevie’s fans, who have doubtlessly spent all that time guessing if he still “has it,” but the fact of the matter is that Mr. Wonder has earned the ability to do what he wants more or less when he wants to do it.
Regardless of the fact that the artist’s reputation was solidified back in the 1960s with The Twelve-Year-Old Genius – this reviewer would have titled the new project The Fifty-Five-Year-Old Genius, but no dice – perpetual delays of a release are rarely a positive sign. Typically, such maneuvers indicate that the label isn’t pleased with what they’re hearing, but Wonder insisted that he was just practicing some judicious perfectionism. Most of us believed him.
We did so, as it turns out, with good cause; A Time to Love is sprawling, filled with guest stars – the roster shows, among others, Sir Paul McCartney, Nathan East, Doug E. Fresh, Hubert Laws and Prince – and possessed of an impressively lavish sound surrounding Wonder’s agile vocals, keyboards and, in certain instances, harmonica. The R&B innovation that popularized his previous albums is intact. So are the odd politics, but in much smaller measure than years past: Toward the end, we are asked, lyrically, why “we make time for passing bills and building prisons, for building fortunes and passing judgments/when will there be a time to love?”
The legend’s innumerable compositional eccentricities remain in a force that, when combined with a quality of production that likely required all the time it consumed and the aforementioned pop and jazz dream team, makes A Time to Love an aggressively difficult album to dislike. Like a Bollywood film, the playlist provides something for everyone: a piano-backed duet (“How Will I Know”), the sort of R&B cheeriness that Wonder himself may actually have invented (“From the Bottom of My Heart”) and hard-hitting electronic funk (“So What the Fuss,” the first single) are merely three of the disc’s 15 available varieties.
Sitting among the formidable Wonder back-catalog, A Time to Love can realistically be called one of his best, or at least his best-sounding. Though “Little Stevie” may be done breaking new ground – musical or social – his previously honed skills are still improving. Look beyond the lack of activism – not something this reviewer has ever gone in for, anyway – and appreciate how much polish the man commands.
[Colin Marshall is a self-proclaimed 22-year-old genius.]