The ambient waves of When I Get Home recall the spiritual essence of Knowles’s birthplace, but they also harken back most noticeably to Wonder’s highly esoteric album. Released 40 years ago this October, Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants is a curious record. The singer’s first studio album since his mega-popular Songs in the Key of Life, it marked the end of Wonder’s “classic period” albums. Where he had once wooed audiences with undeniable melodies, Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants found the artist departing from his trademark soul and funk to experiment with more psychedelic melodies and riffs. The 1979 record, which was released as a double album, was conceived as the soundtrack to the director Walon Green’s nature documentary The Secret Life of Plants, based on the 1973 book by the authors Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird. Wonder’s album drew from all these texts to produce a variegated, immersive soundscape full of chimes, echoes, and synths. It sounded like the inside of a botanical garden at daybreak.
At the time of its release, Wonder’s Secret Life of Plants baffled many listeners and critics. Though it was commercially successful because of the sheer demand for new music from Wonder, Secret Life of Plants challenged the warm reception he’d previously received. One review in Rolling Stone lamented that “plucking the exhilarating moments from Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants is a harrowing, highly subjective task. One person’s nectar is another’s Karo syrup, and the stamens of Wonder’s Plants are bursting with both.” The critic Robert Christgau took issue with the same tonal shift that many fans did: “Like most great popular composers, Wonder is an appalling ‘serious’ one,” he wrote, before noting that “only two of the four songs on side three, which defenders of this album admire, are worthy of Key of Life.” But People offered a more holistic assessment, a lens through which to consider the album even decades later: “It will, as any plant lover knows, root itself if given enough time.”
The slow-unfolding idiosyncrasies of Plants resonate throughout When I Get Home with a similar haziness and emphasis on the revelatory power of repetition. Knowles begins the introductory track, “Things I Imagined,” with a simple observation. “Some things I imagined,” she ponders over synthy backing, then repeats one refrain—“I saw things I imagined”—four times before the time signature changes. Suddenly, the strings recall Wonder’s “Voyage to India,” the Plants instrumental on which he enlisted the musician Ben Bridges to play the sitar. Where “Things I Imagined” began with a tentative gasp, it ends with the suggestion of a journey.
Secret Life of Plants, with its reveling in the beauty of slow processes, is a natural source of inspiration for Knowles, whose music has long toyed with the boundaries between forms of expression. A Seat at the Table was part album, part manifesto. Arriving ahead of the 2016 presidential election, it soundtracked a specific moment in black listeners’ collective fatigue in a climate of increasing racial animus. Solange was “Weary,” and so were her fans. The artist’s syrupy vocals and obliquely political refrains—Don’t touch my hair chief among them—endeared her even to listeners who hadn’t been fans of her prior projects, the more funk-inflected R&B records True and Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams.