Fulfillingness' First Finale

Stevie Wonder

Tamla, 1974

http://www.steviewonder.net

REVIEW BY: Mark Feldman

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 05/30/2000

Just to throw a wrench into the status quo of reviewing old albums, I thought I would try to go where no "Daily Vault" reviewer has gone before, avoiding the pitfalls of comparing an album to an artists' entire recording career, and instead reviewing it as if it had just been released. So, ladies and gentlemen, be prepared to go without e-mail for a while -- rev that old DeLorean up to 88 miles per hour, let down that hair, break out the 8-track player, throw on your olive green leisure suits (or in some of our cases, including mine, diapers), and pretend it's 1974!

The "Supreme Minister of Fine Art," as George Clinton recently put it, is still prolific. He's back from his recent near-fatal accident and hospitalization, and as usual, has a lot on his mind, most of it pertaining to love, God and politics. The form of art to which Stevie Wonder has aspired to paint in has been chock of full of these themes in the past decade, of course, but ever since he negotiated his own "musical freedom" contract with Motown four years ago, he has been able to offer just enough of a new perspective to sound fresh. "Heaven Help Us All" effortlessly melding popular slang with religion, for example, or "You've Got It Bad Girl" transferring the pain of infatuation to its target.

Thus, it pains me to say that for the first time since that glorious contract, which opened up a musical Pandora's Box of ideas for a new genre of contemporary R&B, Wonder is running in place almost as often as he is moving forward. Now, before you all cover your mouths as you gasp in horror at this affront, consider the pair of songs "It Ain't No Use" and "Please Don't Go," both on the second side of the new record. Beautiful songs, both of them; exactly the sort of progressive, orchestral soul that Wonder helped pioneer during his break from the sleek Motown sound that had become all too familiar by 1968 or 1969. But right now it's 1974, and although five years is a mere blip in the life of the universe, it's an eternity in pop music; the only things that separate these songs from the other side of that eternity are the quiet Fender Rhodes electric piano and the slightly higher sound quality of the recording.

The mild staleness isn't limited to side two either. "Smile Please" leads the record off unpretentiously, but doesn't provide the kick of a "Too High." It's a good song, with a complex melody out of the jazz school of melody-writing that never really quite resolves. But instrumentally, it's little more than a pale rehash of "You Are The Sunshine Of My Life." Not bad company, to be sure, but why do this when you've already done "You Are The Sunshine Of My Life?" Wonder is one of those artists who has enough good ideas that he shouldn't have to repeat himself. The awkward meowing at the end of the song (well, maybe that wasn't what he intended, but…) is something new, at least, but he also shouldn't have to resort to said feline impersonations.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The bigger issue with this record is the schlock, which (with one glorious exception known as "Creepin'") is even schlockier than usual. Rather than adorning the sentimentality with sonic innovation, as he did on "Visions," "Girl Blue" and "Superwoman / Where Were You When I Needed You," he has stripped down to basics. "Too Shy To Say" is his sparest song yet, only a piano and a pedal steel guitar, and while that could be interesting, he doesn't pull it off with enough energy. "They Won't Go When I Go" is a gospelly ballad of spiritual desperation that is a little better simply because he sounds like he means it. But at six minutes, and coming right after the fairly somber "It Ain't No Use," it drags you down with it.

One need look no further than "Creepin'" to point out that Wonder is perfectly capable of a non-tedious slow jam. In spite of a flute-filled hook that wouldn't be out of place on a PBS nature special, or even one of those grade school filmstrips where the teacher has to turn the reel every time there's a beep, the song works thanks to the spookiest R&B vocal performance of the seventies. It could be a giraffe that's doing the Creepin' into his dreams, but it wouldn't matter.

And there is more good news. "Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away" is the vintage positive statement of global equality we've been waiting for him to make. The intelligent response to the now-age-old question of "if there's a God, why hasn't he prevented [fill in the blank]?" is a topic that only Stevie Wonder can admirably turn into a song. "You Haven't Done Nothin'," the album's first single, is an earnest letter to Richard Nixon that features a wild, psychedelic, synthesized intro, some well-placed "Doo doo wop"s sung by the Jackson Five, an immaculately-constructed rhythm section (played entirely by Wonder himself, naturally), and an electric-funk bass line that recalls "Superstition" but doesn't just rehash it.

Also on the upbeat front, we have "Boogie On Reggae Woman," a steamy piece of funk that foregoes a bass line altogether in favor of some fuzzy-sounding patch on an ARP2000, most likely. It also contains what is probably his best harmonica showcase since "For Once In My Life"; we can only hope the lack of that instrument on most of this record is only a temporary hiatus. And let's not forget the combination anti-drug and airline commercial "Bird Of Beauty," a polar opposite to "Boogie" in its densely populated mix, but equally worthy of the Wonder name. The striking thing about the upbeat songs is how different they all are from each other. With each one, a bold new texture and atmosphere. It would not be surprising if whole new types of dance music were to unfold as a result of these three tunes alone.

So what we have on a grand scale with Fulfillingness' First Finale is a record that is about 50% stagnation and 50% innovation. That would be a breakthrough for just about anyone else, but for the Supreme Minister of Fine Art, it leaves us remaining on the edge of our seats, still holding our breath for the all-out mindblower we know he has in him.

But given that we very nearly didn't have this Stevie Wonder, we should be thankful and cut him some slack. My prediction about this record is that afficionados of early '70s Wonder (and there will always be many) will eventually see it either as one of those grow-on-you acquired tastes / overlooked masterpieces, or a minor step back before a major forward leap. The jury is still out.

Now, back to 2000 for one last question that's always troubled me: two measures after the beat kicks in on "You Haven't Done Nothin'," there's a quiet "Oww!" in the background. Is that Stevie Wonder, or is it a 13-year-old, still-black, voice-recently-changed Michael Jackson (remember, the Jackson Five do sing backup in the chorus) providing a glimpse of things to come?

Rating: B

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