The 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 visions 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.
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 social 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 here-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 protegee, Minnie Riperton, on the slinky “Creepin’.” The refrain is “in my dreams.” FFF succeeds in making Stevie Wonder’s dreams seem attractive and real.