Pazz and Jop 1974 #4

Stevie Wonder – Fulfillingness’ First Finale

The more I play an artist’s music, the closer I get to understanding them, or at least understanding what they are willing to let us see. In the early 1970s, Stevie Wonder, was a very spiritual and socially conscious man, and a true believer in romantic love. And, perhaps most importantly, he knew that sometimes you needed to put aside the seriousness and get down.

I always favour the upbeat Stevie, so the electro funk of “Boogie On Reggae Woman” and “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” rank highest from this album. The latter has fuzzy chords and slurred lyrics, paralleling the sexual despair of the narrator, but the pairing with tinkling piano, harmonica (has anyone ever loved a good harmonica solo like Stevie?) and an on-fire tempo make it a feel-good track. The former has a more sluggish beat, fitting for a peppy but far from light tune. Absent of funk but still upbeat is the toe-tapping “Smile Please”, which is very much of its era, conjuring up visions of men in brightly-coloured suits and big hair with wide collars and wider ties spinning women in flowing print dresses cut at mid calf across a lounge room dance floor.

As for romantic and spiritual Stevie, his ballads are too often sunny border­ing on sappy, with an undercurrent of obsession – especially “Creepin’” – and deep insecurity about the love in question. “Too Shy to Say” does a good job of balancing this with the piano in a lower register than Wonder’s voice. The deep vein of spirituality seen on his last few albums is tempered here somewhat, but still significant: “Heaven is 10 Zillion Light Years Away” feels like a gospel song, and the repeated line – “feel it, feel His spirit” – leaves no room for doubt. The dirge-like piano opening of “They Won’t Go When I Go” soon turns into a hymn of sorts. It’s a beautiful song, but it unfortunately compels some great artists – Kanye and, more sadly because he seems like an awesome guy (and damned funny – check out his SNL bits as a basketball reporter on a new assignment), Chance the Rapper – to think they are singers. (They are not.)

The only real downside to Wonder’s records is that some of the songs begin to have the repetitive sameness of a wallpapered room. Some of this is at least partly a product of his early dabbling with synthesized sounds: on many tracks, the notes seem to blur together, flowing, indistinct. And he has an all-star team of past, present and future hitmakers on backing vocals – Paul Anka, The Jackson 5, Minnie Riperton, Deniece Williams – but none of them really stand out: it’s Stevie’s show, no matter who (including bass legend James Jamerson) comes along for the ride.

There are few matches in pop music history for the acclaim that Wonder received for his five-album run from 1972 to 1976. Retrospective consideration of those records has defined a clear top 3 – “Songs in the Key of Life” (coming to this blog, at the current rate, sometime in late 2023) with “Innervisions” close behind, then “Talking Book” a distant third – followed, way back, by “Fulfillingness’ First Finale”. I don’t really understand the gap, because this is a damned good album, and well worth a listen or five.

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