Stevie Wonder's last album was 1995's Conversation Peace, a set of overlong, overwrought songs that had the stale aroma of a pop star trying to stay relevant. In the decade since, '70s music icons from E.L.O. to Fleetwood Mac have abandoned any pretense of contemporaneousness and have reverted to their classic sounds, with some critical and commercial success. But apparently nobody sent Wonder the memo that it's okay to be himself again. His generically titled new album A Time To Love is full of generically titled soul ballads like "From The Bottom Of My Heart," which don't sound like anything that should've taken 10 years to concoct. A Time To Love balances overlong slow songs—does Wonder really need to spend six minutes puttering through the inanities of "My Love Is On Fire"?—with flatly awful, bombastic funk tracks like "Tell Your Heart I Love You" and "So What The Fuss," which sound like Prince at his most lost.
Really, only "Sweetest Somebody I Know" comes close to "classic" Wonder, with its springy synths, descending melody, and tossed-off feel. (It even has a vocal intrusion by one of Wonder's kids at the end, just like "Isn't She Lovely.") "Moon Blue"'s low-key, moody melodicism hearkens back to some of the minor-key balladry of Fullfillingness' First Finale, though the song is about twice as long as it has to be. And the simple "Can't Imagine Love Without You" would make a nice American Idol audition piece.
Wonder's unassailable '70s catalog has become a staple of AI contestants, who tend to miss the songs' relaxed tunefulness in their rush to show off their scales. And now Wonder himself seems to have forgotten what made that run of records from Talking Book to Hotter Than July so epochal. There's no "in the key of life" to these new songs—no sense of the intermingled pain and celebration of daily existence. When an artist takes so long between albums, he often feels like he has to make a major statement. A Time To Love's eclectic soul styles and sweeping message songs like "Positivity" all feel calculated to dazzle, but they have none of the beating heart and universal scope of Innervisions. This is more a marketing plan than an album.