By the time Stevie Wonder's "Songs in the Key of Life" gets to its fifth track, the chart-topping "Sir Duke," Wonder has already held court on God, love and the state of race relations in America in the mid-1970s. He's also ripped through, with the help of a young Mike Sembello's guitar chops, an astounding slice of near-instrumental funk.
In an era where singles outsell albums by the widest of margins, what makes Wonder's performance of his seminal album, "Songs in the Key of Life," at Madison Square Garden Thursday important isn't a chance to hear the master perform widely-beloved songs like "Isn't She Lovely" or "As." It's a chance to appreciate the extended coda of "Another Star," to hear a man celebrated for his portrayals of love talk about social justice on songs like "Black Man," and to marvel at the comedown groove of "Easy Goin' Evening (My Mama's Call)," a song that would make the perfect album-ender for any other artist (and here, it's relegated to a bonus EP). It is a chance to celebrate all of the moments that make an album a complete work and, by extension, the idea that a full album can mean more than a simple collection.
Coming near the end of what many have called Wonder's "classic" period, "Songs in the Key of Life" was the first album ever to debut in the top spot on the Billboard charts. Rolling Stone ranked it the 57th greatest album of all time, and has been entered into the National Recording Registry, one of only 400 recordings to be so honored. But while it did yield No. 1 hits in "Sir Duke" and "I Wish," it's easy to argue that the album doesn't contain Wonder's most beloved individual songs. "Superstition" and "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" appeared on "Talking Book," while "Master Blaster (Jammin')" would have to wait until "Hotter Than July."
That Wonder would choose "Sounds in the Key of Life" to tour in this fashion, rather than culling a set list of hits, is its own tribute to a record that has no skippable songs. If you're one of the fortunate ones with a ticket, make sure you hit the concession stands before the show starts; there won't be a good moment to go stand in line.
IF YOU GO: Stevie Wonder performs “Songs in the Key of Life” at Madison Square Garden on Thursday at 8 p.m., 4 Penn Plaza, 212-465-6741, sold out.