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17 December 2017

Tracey Thorn on Innervisions by Stevie Wonder: “Full of serious intent – and danceable”

From the Long Players series: writers on their most cherished albums.

By Tracey Thorn

My brother bought this album when it came out in 1973. He would have been about 19, and I was ten, and not long afterwards he moved out, leaving a few of his records behind. Among them was this one, which for some reason was sort of adopted by my Dad, by temperament and generation more of a Frank Sinatra/George Shearing sort of man. He took a shine to Stevie Wonder and for a while when he put on a record at Sunday lunchtime, instead of it being Nat King Cole, or Eydie Gorme, it would be Innervisions. My sister and I both loved it too, and so the record represented a rare moment when we were all in musical agreement.

And what a giant of an album it is. Musically diverse and varied. Stevie plays almost every instrument on it, in that crazy-talented way that prefigured Prince. It’s a lyrically profound, conscious record; visionary and impassioned, full of images of struggle and transcendence yet packed with tunes and hits – “Golden Lady”, “All In Love Is Fair”, “Don’t You Worry ‘bout a Thing”, “He’s Misstra Know-It-All”.  And perhaps its greatest track, “Living For The City”, a stirring, anti-racist groove anthem.

I remember being overwhelmed by that breathless spoken word section in the middle, the song suddenly becoming a movie as the music breaks down and is replaced by the sound of traffic and the voice of a young man arriving on a Greyhound bus : “New York,” he exclaims, “just like I pictured it, skyscrapers and everything!” Trouble arrives, and chaos ensues, and before you know it he has been crushed by racist cops and prison guards, and then back comes the song – Stevie’s furious, clinging-to-hope final verses, his voice gritty with near despair. Pop songs could be so ambitious in those days – musically accomplished, full of serious intent and lyrical dexterity, and danceable. I don’t know what else you’d ever need.

So this is an album which I admire unreservedly, and for which I also have strong sentimental feelings. It reminds me of home, and of my whole family, at a moment when we were all in unexpected accord and hit a kind of communal musical high-point that we never bettered.

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special