Good-Time Wonder : * * * * Great Balls of Fire * * * Good Vibrations * * Maybe Baby * Running on Empty :

* * *STEVIE WONDER, "Characters." Motown.

Stevie Wonder's "Skeletons" is surely the timeliest single of the year. The record, a Top 30 hit, comments on the issue of skeletons in one's closet--buried secrets that threaten to come to the surface. In the year of Jim and Tammy, Gary Hart, Joseph Biden, Douglas Ginsburg et al., it's a theme that strikes a chord.

The tension in the record steadily builds as Wonder spits out the choruses. "It's getting ready to shake / You're getting ready to ache / Somebody done snitched to the news crew / And it's gettin' ready to break."

But Wonder's song doesn't just deal with damaging disclosures about public figures. It also addresses the issues of ethics and responsibility in each of our lives.

"Skeletons," which has a funky R&B; sound like "Superstition" and "I Wish," is the clear highlight of "Characters," Wonder's first album in two years. But it's not really representative of the album, which is for the most part a set of pop-minded songs that steer clear of political or social messages.

Only two of the songs concern social issues. The rich, funky "Dark 'N' Lovely" is a direct attack on racial prejudice and apartheid, and the warm, compassionate "You Will Know" includes a subtle anti-drug message.

If Wonder eschews relevance, at least he has a good time. The most engaging cut is "In Your Corner," a reggae-influenced song about two kids sneaking out to a rowdy party. The mood is playful and good-natured, giving it the heart and warmth that are missing from "Get It," a duet with Michael Jackson.

The cut is catchy, but the hoped-for sparks never really ignite. Part of the problem is the triteness of the song, which has the stars tussling over who gets the girl. It's basically an uptempo, rockish version of "The Girl Is Mine," Jackson's 1982 duet with Paul McCartney. And the girl still has no say in the matter.

The songs on "Characters" range from good to very good, but the album lacks the sense of unity and purpose--well, the character --that marks Wonder's best collections. The whole is no more than the sum of its parts.

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