Friday, 1 May 2009

1984 Stevie Wonder: I Just Called To Say I Love You

Spare a thought for poor Stevie Wonder: despite a run of copper bottomed, classic five star singles stretching back to 1966, his first taste of a UK number one came through hitching a ride on the back of a wretched Paul McCartney ballad. And if that wasn't ignomy enough, he then has to rely on 'I Just Called To Say I Love You' to mark his first solo appearance at the top.

I say ignomy, for although I would dearly love to be able to report that the success of this song was due to it trumping all his previous singles (such as, lest we forget, 'Uptight (Everything's Alright)', 'I Was Made To Love Her', 'Superstition', 'Higher Ground' and 'Living For The City' etc) and being the best thing he'd ever released, I can't.

And I can't because it's not;
Wonder had always utilised the most up to date technology in his output, but by the time of the mid eighties his growing obsession with synthesisers and all things electronic had ceased to compliment his music and instead became all consuming and detrimental to it. And this detriment is nowhere more evident than on this song.

With a rhythm set down by an electronic drum beat and percussion straight out of the pre-set options of the nastiest, tackiest home organ money can buy, 'I Just Called To Say I Love You' plods along a narrow, four and a half minute road in virtually the same key and time signature from end to end.

Gone was the rootsy feel, intricate chord structures and sharp, jazz like key changes of old and in their place comes a woozy synthesiser hum that oozes out of the speakers like treacle poured slowly from a tin where it settles like a gooey shroud, smothering any excitement or unpredictability that may have dared to show its face. And when something different does finally come along, it only extends to Wonder singing backing vocals through a vocoder. Rather than revitalising the song, it's the gimmicky headshot that kills it stone dead.

Not since Chuck Berry hit number one with 'My Ding A Ling' in 1972 has an artist of stature scored their biggest hit with such a totally unrepresentative song. 'I Just Called To Say I Love You' is the sort of effort the Wonder of old could have dashed off in his bed before he even woke up and then rejected as being too boring. Simplistic, trite, repetitive, saccharine sickly and overly sentimental; it's tempting to think that his experience with McCartney had shown him that maybe he'd been trying too hard in the past and that success would follow a radical dumbing down:

"I just called to say I love you

I just called to say how much I care
I just called to say I love you
And I mean it from the bottom of my heart"

Maybe that's a cynical view, but though the Hallmark greeting card verse may be direct and to the point, Wonder has proved himself capable of far better than this. Hell, a ten year old child would be capable of better. And at least with a ten year old child the result wouldn't be accompanied by the crushing sense of disappointment coupled with the faint gurgling sound of a talent being pissed down the drain.

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