On 12 January 1980, “Send One Your Love” by Stevie Wonder peaked at #4.
For most of these first two weeks of 1980, I’ve been very down on the listening habits of the American public. I stand by much of what I’ve said: people generally don’t like to be challenged too much when they’re relaxing, and let’s face it, for most people the radio is background music. Occasionally, though, a song will manage to be challenging, accessible, and a hit. Usually a song like that has to come out of an established act, who was successful with more standard fare and then has the reputation to get away with something more difficult. Here is a perfect example: “Send One Your Love” by Stevie Wonder.
Now, you’re listening to this song and probably wondering what I’m talking about. It has the standard verse-chorus structure, a pretty straightforward time signature, pretty standard instrumentation, and, heck, it’s a love song. But listen to it closer. Listen, just before he sing’s “Send her your love” each time: the instruments lift to an unresolved chord progression, creating an actual moment of audial tension. And the whole song does this really; the chord progression slips and slides, but always ends on a chord that leaves the phrase unresolved, leading you on through the song by the hand. You can’t listen to this song and feel like you got your musical closure out of it unless you listen all the way to the end with that gentle faded out harmonica and tinkle-bell. It’s musically challenging in ways that no other song I’ve covered so far has been.
And the lyrics aren’t your standard love song. Stevie isn’t talking about how much he loves someone; he’s talking about how much he wishes other people could express their feelings to each other. It’s not exactly untrodden territory in a pop song, but it’s rare enough a message that I’m always surprised to hear it explored.
So, briefly, Stevie is managing to be subtle and intelligent, and he’s managing to sneak his expert musicianship into a smooth jazz package that lets the complexities sneak past people’s pop cultural danger sensors. I wish more music sounded like this — easy to listen to, but very interesting when you actually pay close attention.