Among the classics of soul and funk music, Earth, Wind and Fire arguably holds one of the highest spots in the genre around the entire world. Yet since their last full album, “Illumination,” the group’s music has gradually come to be considered oldie’s classics, showing signs of nearly dying out. Now, eight years after their last studio album, the Chicago band makes a triumphant return with “Now, Then, and Forever.”
The first thing heard in the opening track, “Sign On,” is the instrumental, with the variety of horn instruments making a welcomed return from previous albums. Their songs have become more refined than ever, mixing old instruments with new technology and audio effects. However, lyrics on a small handful of songs such as “Love is Law” feel slightly preachy and don’t add as much variety lyrically compared to previous tracks. These tracks are feel-good pieces, but nothing groundbreaking or risky.
Actually, the fact that the large group continues to hold together is impressive in itself, as bandleader Maurice White is not featured in this album, having been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease for almost 20 years now. Former listeners have begun to feel mixed about the band as a whole with the creator of the group not having a public feature on Now, Then, and Forever. Another founding yet aged member, Larry Dunn, has added his talents to the production as a keyboardist for the album rather than singing upfront, and he executes this new role well.
“Guiding Lights” has got to be a personal favorite for this album, going back to a slower-paced soulful formula as opposed to a disco style. It also features well thought-out symbolism in the lyrics, which I wished was more consistent throughout the entire album. The styles of each track, as the band is known for, have a variety of moods while still retaining the same instruments, something rather difficult to pull off in today’s music.
Longtime fans often doubt how the band would still be able to hold up without founder Maurice White, but as band member Phillip Bailey told billboard.com, “I had to really resolve in my mind that our music is that important to millions of people, and they really do expect Earth, Wind & Fire to sound like Earth, Wind & Fire — and if you try to hard to go forward and lose who you are then you lose your base and you lose what’s attractive to fans.” “Now, Then, and Forever” accomplishes its goal of blending a timeless, classic sound, with modern technical feeling.
Overall, I’d give the album four out of five stars. Not their best work, but a quality album nonetheless.