Signed, Sealed and Delivered
Any of the 12 songs on Stevie Wonder’s new album holds more creative singing than you’re likely to find in another performer’s entire body of work. And while everything may not reach the energy level of the title song, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” there’s not a bad cut on the LP. One of the best is a version of Lennon-McCartney’s “We Can Work It Out,” which had a startling, brand-new vitality even on an early unmixed tape. In its finished state, it’s extraordinary. Stevie seems to accompany himself with a backing track of his own voice in a higher register, and uses both simultaneously to underline the deeper-voiced lead track and as prodding accent. As with the other cuts here, “We Can Work It Out” has a tasteful, unencumbered arrangement, in this case upbeat, driven along by drums and organ and Wonder on harmonica.
The rest of the album is original material, most of it written in part by Stevie, who also produced the record. Nearly every number has single potential, but a few rise above the rest: “I Can’t Let My Heaven Walk Away” is a beautifully-written Lost Love song (“I accused my angel of being a liar / I said the flesh is weak and guys keep tryin'”) that Stevie delivers in fine style — the way he slashes at the word “flesh” in the quoted line is worth the whole cut. “Joy Takes Over Me” and “Sugar” are both total pleasures, the first suitably joyous, building to ecstasy in little more than two minutes, the second an equally happy celebration overflowing with wild shouts, harmonica and ripping guitar. “You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover” is a neat little treatise on lovers’ poses (“I practice looking bored / so you can feel ignored”), is full of nice flourishes — mainly Stevie’s way of snapping off a word by flinging it up into a falsetto. And of course “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” can’t go anywhere but up after that raspy opening scream — helped by tight drumming, wonderful girls and a sweet horn section. On this cut Stevie soars, bringing to perfection his technique of singing close to the mike so that his heavy breathing becomes part of the song’s texture.
In this context, “Never Had a Dream Come True,” with its violins, seems to lag a little and the most recent single, “Heaven Help Us All,” feels uncomfortably religious rather than soulfully spiritual. But it hardly brings the level down. Stevie Wonder shines throughout, yes he does, and joy (takes over me).
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