Monday, November 20, 2017

Stevie Wonder Explores Love, Heartbreak and Spirituality on Fulfillingness’ First Finale

Stevie Wonder released five incredible classic albums from the years 1972 to 1976. It was one of the most impressive runs in the history of popular music.  The multitalented music legend was at the height of his creative powers during these years, which came to be known as his “classic period.” Fulfillingness’ First Finale (1974) was one of his album releases during this period of sustained excellence, inspiration and unadulterated genius.

However, whenever people talk about Stevie’s classic period, the albums most frequently mentioned are Innervisions, Songs in the Key of Life and Talking Book. Fulfillingness’ First Finale seems to be mentioned the least, right behind Music of My Mind. And it’s just as strong a collection as the other classic-era albums, but for some reason, it doesn’t get the same level of love and recognition as the others.

Perhaps First Finale is often overlooked because it was released between Innervisions (1973) and Songs in the Key of Life (1976), Stevie’s two most celebrated landmark albums.  It’s a testament to his great talent and exceptional output during the ‘70s that an amazing album like First Finale could be overlooked or underrated. Many talented music artists go their entire careers without an album as consistently strong as First Finale.

It should also be noted that First Finale was recorded after Stevie was involved in a terrible car crash in which he sustained life-threatening injuries. The near-death experience stirred a renewed spirituality in the artist. As a result, this LP has a more solemn, introspective tone than his other works from that period, as well as more pronounced spiritual themes.

 “Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away” is a spiritual song in which Stevie laments the fact that God’s love seems so far away during these troubled times of hate and division, and how it’s more important than ever that we embrace “His spirit.” The song possesses a wistful beauty, and Stevie sings his verses in a resigned and melancholy fashion.

Another song from the album with a strong spiritual theme is the elegiac “They Won’t Go When I Go.” Stevie muses on how his soul will go to a place of eternal peace and freedom upon his demise—a destination far away from all the wickedness, sadness, hate and suffering of the world. The song has a dirgelike Chopinesque feel to it, which helps emphasize its somber theme; it also has some soulful gospel shadings. And Stevie’s keyboard work here is superb—on the piano and the T.O.N.T.O. synthesizer. It’s just a brilliant piece of music and one of Stevie’s most underrated songs.

The album also touches on matters of the heart. The resplendent “Too Shy To Say” is an unrequited love ballad. This sonic gem is another example of why Stevie is untouchable as a ballad writer. The track features some exquisite pedal steel guitar work from Sneaky Pete Kleinow, and bass legend James Jamerson contributes his skills on the acoustic bass.

"Creepin’” also focuses on unrequited love with the object of Stevie’s affection invading his dreams at night. He sonically creates a mysterious and haunting atmosphere on this mesmerizing tune. Legendary singer Minnie Riperton brings her vocal magic to the track, and Stevie delivers a sterling harmonica solo.

Stevie decides to funk things up a bit with the irresistible Caribbean-flavored “Boogie On Reggae Woman.” This track features one of his funkiest Moog synth basslines. He’s just riding all over the groove on his Moog bass. And just when you think things can’t get any funkier, Stevie takes the funk up a notch with a smokin’ harmonica solo.

Side two kicks off with the blistering political anthem “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” where Stevie goes in with both barrels on the Nixon administration for its indifference, lies and corruption. This super-funky groove features some sizzling clavinet work from Stevie and some soulful backing vocals from his talented Motown labelmates the Jackson 5 on the “do-do-wops.” It’s one of the musician’s most powerful and scathing political statements on wax.

Following “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” is the bittersweet breakup song “It Ain’t No Use.” Stevie delivers a magnificent vocal performance here and receives strong support from Deniece Williams, Minnie Riperton and Lani Groves on the chorus.

Amid all the spiritual soul searching, heartache and fiery political protest, there are two uplifting tunes on the album to lighten the mood a bit: “Smile Please” and “Bird of Beauty.” “Smile Please” has a very hopeful tone with Stevie urging the listener not to dwell in sadness, because “There're brighter days ahead.” Michael Sembello's delicate guitar work helps enhance the track’s tranquil vibe.

“Bird of Beauty” is about transporting yourself away from all the stress and negativity of the world and taking a mental vacation, where much beauty and true happiness can be found. The song has a soothing tropical flow that’s enhanced by the rich background harmonies provided by Deniece Williams, Lani Groves and Shirley Brewer.

“Please Don’t Go,"another great breakup song, closes out the album. The song has an infectious melody and a stellar arrangement. And Stevie serves up yet another fantastic harmonica solo.

Stevie displayed a broad range of his talents on Fulfillingness’ First Finale. He played most of the instruments on the tracks and was the sole writer of every song, except for “They Won’t Go When I Go,” which he co-wrote with singer/songwriter Yvonne Wright. He co-produced the album with Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil.

Fulfillingness’ First Finale was a huge commercial and critical success. It was lauded by numerous music publications and won three Grammy awards—Best Male Pop Vocal; Best Male Rhythm and Blues Vocal Performance (for “Boogie On Reggae Woman); and the coveted Album of the Year award.

It topped the U.S. R&B album chart for nine non-consecutive weeks and spent two weeks atop the U.S. Pop album chart.  It also topped Canada’s album chart and reached #5 on the UK album chart. The album’s two singles (“You Haven’t Done Nothin’” and “Boogie on Reggae Woman”) also performed extremely well on the charts. “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” topped both the R&B and pop singles charts in the U.S. And “Boogie on Reggae Woman” reached the summit of the U.S. R&B singles chart and peaked at #3 on the U.S. pop singles chart.

Fulfillingness’ First Finale definitely earned its spot alongside Stevie’s other landmark albums from his classic period.  This collection, as with his other albums from that era, captures Stevie in complete control of his musical gifts, equipped with the vision, talent, technical skill and daring to see his creative ideas to their full fruition.

You Haven't Done Nothin'

They Won't Go When I Go

No comments: