Saturday, March 05, 2011

analysis: "If You Really Love Me"

I wouldn't say I'm a huge Stevie Wonder fan. I like some of his stuff, but some of his stuff ("I Just Called to Say I Love You") not so much.

But I LOVE If You Really Love Me by Stevie and his wife Syreeta - who also does backing vocals. It is always in my iTunes "Recently Played" list. I could listen to it any time of the day or night, anywhere, although the best time to listen to it is when I'm driving and the windows are down because it's warm out and it comes on, unexpectedly, on an oldies station while I'm waiting at a red light.

And I crank it up and sing along with it to the delight (I take the liberty of assuming) of all the other car drivers around me (you're welcome!) as I bathe in the glow of my own super-cool cosmic transcendent apotheosis.

Pretty good for a recording that is 40 years old this year.

But why do I love it so much? As always, a given piece of art's effect on one defies close analysis, but that never stops the foolhardy and intrepid from trying anyway.

Firstly there is that smooth and sexy yet warm and friendly voice - Stevie Wonder in his twenty-one year old prime.

It starts out with a descending piano figure immediately joined by a horn section. I'm not always a big horn-section fan, especially in pop music, but this is done right and anticipates Bruce Springsteen's early work a bit, the perfect piano/horn combo.

Then Stevie does a little hiccuppy "ah yeah" while the main theme plays and the drums kick in. Soon the first lyric with Stevie on top and then himself overdubbed doing an echo of the lyrics under
Welllllll if you really love me
Won't you tell me, yeah.
Then the sexy female backup vocal doubles under Stevie's vocal:
And if you really love me
Won't you tell me, yeah.
And then the solid:
Then I-I won't have to be playing arooouund
I should say the vocals are solid, but the horns are doing this mind-blowingly cool contrast with little noodly: bah dah dah, bah dah dah, bah dah dah badadahdah bah dah daaaaaAAAHHHHHH.....

So far so great, a plea from Stevie - give me a reason to be monogamous!

And here's where it becomes idiosyncratic - and pure genius. Stevie stops the momentum and does the first of two slow-downs with just a piano and bass accompaniment
You call my name ooh so sweet
To make your kissing complete
When your mood is clear you quickly change your ways.
Then you say I'm untrue
What am I supposed to do?
Be a fool who sits alone waiting for you?
He builds the anticipation by finishing the last line with a little bumm bumm bumm bumm bumm-bumm-bumm-bummbummbumm on the piano, with drums and launches back into the refrain.

(And that little piano figure right after "change your ways" is pure Dave Sancious from "The Wild, the Innocent and the E-Street Shuffle" album.)

And it's here that I think the song completes its absolute dominance over my psyche - and it doesn't sound like much to describe it - it's the way that the clarinet (I think it's a clarinet) plays this slow patient rhythm - whaaah whah whaaaah whah - while the other horns do their filigree, along with the incomparable driving Motown bass, drums, vocals and hand-claps. The clarinet rhythm is NOT in the first appearance of the lyric.
Buuuut if you really love me
Won't you tell me, yeah.
And if you really need/love me
Won't you tell me yeah?
Then I won't have to be playing arouuunnnnd.
And another break into the slow section, but this time you suspect what's coming and the sexual tension is almost unbearable, and with extra breathiness this time:
I see the light offf your smile
Calling me alllll the while
You are saying, Baby, it's time to go-oo-ooo.
First the feeling's alright
Then it's gone from sight
So I'm taking all this time to SAAAYYYYY... whoah
OK, now here comes the last refrain: the piano goes bumm bumm bumm bumm bumm-bumm-bumm-bummbummbumm and here comes the clarinet - whahh whah whaaaah whah and THEN male vocals going "ahhhhhhhAAH!" But that isn't all - this is the final appearance of the refrain so it has to go out big and it does:
Oh if you really love me
Won't you tell me, yeah.
And if you really love me
Won't you tell me, baby, tell me?
Then I won't have to be playing arouuunnnnd.
Playing arouuuuund! No!
Goofin' arounnnnd oh baby!
Playing arouuuuund!
And everything gets thrown into the mix to reach a crescendo that compares to any symphony and then it quickly fades away.

And all in three minutes and three seconds - a brief moment of pure ecstasy.

According to Wiki the instrumentation is Stevie and The Funk Brothers, who should all be knighted and sainted in my opinion.

Listen!

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