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Fulfillingness' First Finale
Stevie Wonder

Tamla T63332S1
Released: July 1974
Chart Peak: #1
Weeks Charted: 65

Stevie WonderThe cover of Fulfillingness' First Finale depicts a staircase of keyboards rising -- from the Motor Town Review and "Fingertips" through gold records, Grammies and an auto accident -- to the sky. It's remarkably apt, for the careers of few performers in popular music have been such uninterrupted ascents. Nothing, not even a brush with death, has interrupted Wonder's progress toward ever higher ground, and FFF is a new plateau. As its title declares, the album is a culmination of what has come before, but it is by no means a final destination.

Since he assumed complete control of his musical direction in 1972 (relegating Motown to the role of merchandiser), Wonder's albums have been about vision. About the false visios that delude and undo people (ambition in "Superwoman," superstition in the hit of the same name, shady demagogy in "Big Brother" and "He's Misstra Know-It-All," and dope in "Too High"); about Wonder's idealistic "innervision," which is religious, romantic, and political at the same time; and about things as they are.

Stevie Wonder - Fulfillingness' First Finale
Original album advertising art.
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Talking Book (1972) juxtaposed the faith of "Lookin' for Another Pure Love," "I Believe (If I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)," and "You and I (Can Conquer the World)" with the frank and funky realism of "Maybe Your Baby," "Blame It on the Sun," and "Tuesday Heartbreak." In "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" Wonder sings, "And I know that this must be heaven," but Talking Book makes clear that heaven is more a matter of wishing and hoping than a firm conviction. A year ago, Innervisions pitted "the milk-and-honey land," which was a sicial as well as a romantic ideal, against the gritty naturalism of "Living for the City," the "superficial paradise" of drugs, and "Misstra Know-It-All"'s con game. The contest ended in a draw.

If Talking Book deals primarily with love of woman and Innervisions with love of humanity, FFF concerns the love of God. Wonder's faith has become more inner-directed and otherworldly, less easily threatened by the hear-and-now. "Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away" but Stevie Wonder can feel God within him, despite His seeming absence from the contemporary scene. "Feel it (yeah) feel His spirit." A self-assured serenity pervades FFF, and it opposes the tension and urgency which made Talking Book and Innervisions more exciting albums. FFF's tunes and tempi are for the most part easygoing, more like "Sunshine of My Life" than "Living for the City" or "Superstition." The album aims at relaxed enjoyment; it's not something to get hot and bothered about.

FFF is less funky, less specifically black than its predecessors. For Wonder's onward and upward development has consistently been away from strict soul music and racial categories or limitations. Because of this, his appeal -- greater than that of almost any other performer today -- cuts across social and ethnic barriers. In this respect he's ideally suited to Motown, which has never been content with an exclusively black market. But unlike so many Detroit acts, whose wooing of white listeners leaves them pallid and gutless, Wonder's music expands and its integrity is strengthened, not diminished.

A striking example of his cosmopolitan approach is the stark and dramatic "They Won't Go When I Go." Inspired by gospel testifying, nonetheless the song variously sounds Islamic, Gregorian, and even Hebraic, reflecting the syncretism of Wonder's religion. Stately and decorous, doleful, even stone-righteous, the track's blend of tones and fervent piety make it FFF's most arresting track.

It's also the least representative, for Wonder realizes that such seriousness can be less entertaining to a pop music audience. More typically, he weds an earnest lyric to a lighthearted melody, as he did on Talking Book's "Big Brother." Thus a mellow, easy-rolling tune sweetens the zeal of "Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away," and it also conveys the calm confidence of Wonder's devotion. Even when it touches upon lost love or abandonment, FFF is a cool album, for Wonder has reached the point where little can shake his convictions or composure. "Please Don't Go" is sung to a woman, but it's neither desperate nor abject like "Maybe Your Baby" on Talking Book. In fact, it's cheerful. "It Ain't No Use" treats the end of a romance, but its attitude -- kindly, even jocular -- is a far cry from the pain and guilt of Innervisions's "All in Love Is Fair."

As has become his custom, Stevie Wonder plays almost all of the instruments on FFF, and his drumming (once a sore point) continues to improve. The only other musician whose contribution is essential is "Sneaky" Pete Kleinow, whose pedal steel on "Too Shy To Say" is lovely. The high note Wonder sings at the end of each verse of this hushed, sentimental ballad is extremely touching. More than its predecessors, FFF abounds with other voices, including cameo appearances by the Jackson 5, the Persuasions, and -- would you believe -- Paul Anka. The album explores rich harmonies with splendid results, particularly the duet with Wonder's protégé, Minnie Ripperton, on the slinky "Creepin'." The refrain is "in my dreams." FFF succeeds in making Stevie Wonder's dreams seem attractive and real.

- Ken Emerson, Rolling Stone, 9/26/74.

Bonus Reviews!

Stevie Wonder is one of those rare artists who transcends categorization. Brilliant may be an overused word, but that is the only word that can be used to describe his performance as he moves through one masterpiece after another. His voice has reached a maturity never realized before, his songs are all the more meaningful and his orchestration and production is beyond most people in the world of pop today. Here, he uses the ballad format, rock, sophisticated supper club arrangements, tunes dominated by synthesizers and virtually anything one can think of. It is difficult to think of music lovers of any kind who will not be able to flow with the masterful work on this set, and it boggles the mind to realize someone so young is such an obvious major talent. In short, those who have described Stevie as a genius are 100 percent right. And just as boggling, he has progressed past his last set. Absolute brilliance. Best cuts: "Smile Please," "Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away," "Too Shy To Say," "It Ain't No Use," "They Won't Go When I Go."

- Billboard, 1974.

What made Wonder's last two albums so gorgeous was the carefree indecorum of the ballads, which broke the rules with supremely indulgent self-confidence and only became more beautiful as a result. But this time the slow ones are less carefree than aimless: Only "They Won't Go When I Go" gets lost altogether, and most reveal substantial charms in the end, but we really shouldn't have to look so hard for them. The two great cuts, meanwhile, get across mostly on momentum -- "You Haven't Done Nothin'," about "the nightmare/That's become real life," and "Boogie On Reggae Woman," about boogieing on. A-

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

Two funky, clarinet-dominated singles, "Boogie on, Reggae Woman" and "You Haven't Done Nothin'," are the high points of this record. Much of the rest of the album is centered around the electric piano, a sound ubiquitous in Black music in the early '70s. Wonder occasionally gets a little syrupy on the non-hit material, although his phrasing is so fine that one tends to be forgiving. * * * *

- Rob Bowman, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

Fulfillingness' First Finale marks the last -- and most commercially successful -- of Stevie's remarkable quartet of albums with synth wizards Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil, the engineers who had assisted his transition from child genius to adult superstar.

Sessions could last three full days, as Stevie multi-tracked his unorthodox, self-taught drumming and Moog-created basslines to conjure compelling grooves. These were the raw material for perfect pop songs, with all the drama and complexity of Schubert lieder.

The songs, recorded after Stevie's near-fatal car crash on August 6, 1973, are more life affirming than 1973's often-angry Innervisions. The country ballad "Too Shy Too Say" features a Ray Charles-ish vocal, accompanied by gorgeous pedal steel guitar by Sneaky Pete Kleinow of the Flying Burrito Brothers. There is the jittery funk of "Boogie On Reggae Woman," the spooky ballad "Creepin'," and the Brazilian fusion of "Bird Of Beauty."

The neo-gospel epic "They Won't Go When I Go" -- with lyrics by Stevie's sister-in-law Yvonne Wright -- borrows from Islamic prayer and Gregorian chants, and was later covered by George Michael.

Most memorable of all was the militant "You Haven't Done Nothin'." It revisited the stomping funk-rock of "Superstition" and became Stevie's fourth U.S. No. 1, aided by Motown label-mates The Jackson Five on backing vocals. The album itself also made U.S. No. 1.

- John Lewis, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.

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