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“We’ve conquered all our eyes can see
But we still live in poverty.
Did you have enough?
Did you have enough?"
Forty-one years after the release of their debut album, Earth, Wind & Fire (1972), legendary R&B/Funk/Disco group Earth, Wind & Fire released their 21st studio album, Now, Then & Forever. The preceding press release said that Now, Then & Forever would mark a return to the horn-laden signature sound that turned these innovative pioneers into international superstars in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. While a partially valid selling point, Earth, Wind & Fire had already made a return of sorts to said signature sound on 2002’s The Promise, and, even more so, on 2005’s all-star collaboration, Illumination. After more than a decade of Earth, Wind & Fire catering to the stylistically somewhat sterile and simplistic sounds and productions of the times (late ‘80s, 1990s) – a stark contrast to the lush, intricate arrangements of their ‘70s/early ‘80s recordings – they finally successfully updated their signature sound without compromising its warmth and aesthetic. The Promise and Illumination were quite reminiscent of Earth, Wind & Fire’s commercially most successful albums, albeit with a contemporary R&B production. What sets Now, Then & Forever apart from these two albums, however, is the return of the band’s trademark horn section (horn arrangements were present on The Promise and Illumination, too, but less so), and the production on Now, Then & Forever is very similar to the warm sound of the classic LPs and singles that Earth, Wind & Fire recorded in their prime.
Now, Then & Forever also marks the first album without genius mastermind Maurice White, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in the late 1980s (he stopped touring altogether in 1994). Now, while the very thought of Maurice White’s absence is bound to cause a certain degree of disappointment among Earth, Wind & Fire’s longtime fans, the remaining three members – lead vocalist Philip Bailey, bassist Verdine White and drummer/percussionist Ralph Johnson – have written, recorded and produced (with collaborators, including ex-band member Larry Dunn) an album that is true to Maurice White’s original vision of how the music should sound, and what the messages of the lyrics should say. High tenor singer Philip Bailey has taken on the role as Earth, Wind & Fire’s new leader, and it was his decision to take the band’s sound even further back in time. Having listened to some new songs they’d recorded, Bailey concluded that they didn’t really sound all that much like Earth, Wind & Fire. That’s when he started listening to the group’s back catalogue from the ‘70s and early ‘80s to reconnect with the essence of their classic recordings, and two years later Earth, Wind & Fire released Now, Then & Forever.
Sign On kicks off Now, Then & Forever in true old-school Earth, Wind & Fire fashion, with energetic horns, funky bass, and a positive message that urges us all to look at the world of today and then look within ourselves to see the truth: so many people aren’t happy, they’re hurting, as a result of modern, material “values” (“We’ve conquered all our eyes can see / But we still live in poverty”). The lyrics to the song read like a sequel to the title track of 1974’s Open Our Eyes (“Father, open our eyes, that we may see / To follow Thee, oh, Lord / Grant us Thy lovin' peace, oh yeah / And let all dissension cease”). Guiding Lights, the first single released off the album, is a classy and classic Earth, Wind & Fire ballad featuring horns and breezy keyboards that elevate one’s spirit. The equally vintage-sounding second single, The Promise, was written by the talented songwriter Siedah Garrett, who sang the duet I Just Can’t Stop loving You with Michael Jackson (she also wrote his hit single Man In The Mirror).
A classical piano intro – in the style of Alicia Keys – opens Got To Be Love, a song that has classic Earth, Wind & Fire written all over it (think Can’t Hide Love, All About Love), and the tranquil Belo Horizonte is an instrumental track in the tradition of Africano (from 1975’s That’s The Way Of The World) and Brazilian Rhyme (off 1977’s All ‘N All). Love Is Law is a mid-tempo composition that’s equal parts old-school and contemporary, much like the majority of the songs on 2002’s The Promise, and the spirited Dance Floor, showcasing Verdine White's funky bass, is Earth, Wind & Fire’s greatest party anthem since Boogie Wonderland. Everything about Now, Then & Forever is a tribute to Maurice White, the group’s visionary, original leader, singer, songwriter, musician, producer and arranger. Even if Maurice White is not present on Now, Then & Forever as a creative force, he’s right there in mind, soul and spirit, and it sounds and feels good.