Anyone who smiles while listening to classic Earth Wind and Fire tracks (just try remaining seated during “September”) will thoroughly enjoy the group’s first album in eight years, Now, Then and Forever. In the liner notes, founding member Philip Bailey describes listening to all of their past albums up to 1980′s Faces during an overseas flight. Clearly, he used those templates to create their new disc, a welcome return to form that even recalls their earliest jazz roots.
Bailey’s falsetto remains largely undimmed since their 1970s heyday, his voice gracing funky cuts like “Sign On” and “Love Is Law.” Earth Wind, and Fire’s trademark horns blare throughout many tunes, with Verdine White’s steady bass underscoring the beat. “Love Is Law” represents the band at their best, fusing R&B with a healthy dose of jazz. “My Promise” echoes their finest dance workouts like “Boogie Wonderland” or “Sing a Song,” another track that dares listeners not to dance.
In typical Earth Wind, and Fire fashion, the songs alternate between romantic love and inspirational sentiments. The midtempo “Guiding Lights” represents the latter, with Bailey crooning uplifting lines such as “Keep your head to the sky, and let the clouds tell you why” or “If you breathe in the love, you become one of us.” Think classic jams like “Devotion,” and you’ll get the meaning of this lovely song. “Got to Be Love,” co-written by Bailey and original member Ralph Johnson, apparently combines these themes, asking “What is this chemistry that’s taking me high?” suggesting sexual attraction. But the words also state that “I can feel there’s something healing me,” inferring that the love the narrator feels transcends romantic feelings.
Fans of their earliest albums will be delighted at their inclusion of instrumental jazz jams. “Belo Horizonte” showcases the band’s considerable chops, with percussion and acoustic guitar the standouts on the gently swaying Brazilian track. “Splashes” is more experimental — the trumpet and spacey sound effects suggest the band binged on Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew before recording this one.
At the same time, Earth Wind, and Fire realizes their audience loves those uptempo, danceable tracks, and they deliver on tracks like “Dance Floor.” “Night of My Life” also attempts this sound, but the chorus becomes a bit repetitive, whereas “Dance Floor” keeps interest high with its driving beat and piercing horn section.
A welcome comeback, Now, Then and Forever marks a return to form for a band who still enchants audiences after almost 50 years. With founder Maurice White retired but remaining the group’s musical guide, Earth Wind, and Fire sounds more energized than ever. Wisely avoiding today’s over-computerized sound, the band has retained its signature voice, and that is definitely a good thing.