In 2013 veteran band Earth, Wind & Fire released the album Now, Then & Forever. Like many releases by veteran acts in this new age the album received little attention. That is extremely unfortunate. As a long time fan of the band I would say that this is their strongest and most consistent album in over twenty five years. The album is full of the band’s unique blend of pop, rock, R&B, jazz, funk, dance and world music. The lead single Guiding Lights is classic Earth, Wind & Fire. I would even go so far as to say that it is one of the band’s best singles. That is a bold statement for a band with so many iconic hit songs. I do believe that Guiding Lights is among their very best.
One of the most improbable aspects of Now, Then & Forever is that the band achieved such excellence without the great Maurice White. This is the first Earth, Wind & Fire album produced without any musical input from Maurice White. White, the band’s founder and long time leader, was still alive at the time of the recording of the album. However it would seem that he was unable to participate due to less than ideal health. The current core of the band is Philip Bailey, longtime bassist Verdine White and longstanding member Ralph Johnson. They collaborated with several producers, songwriters and quite a few studio musicians. The end result is one of the truest sounding Earth, Wind & Fire albums in decades.
The last few Earth, Wind & Fire albums compromised the band’s core sound by adopting too many current sounds and trends. Now, Then & Forever is classic Earth, Wind & Fire for the twenty first century. The album carries the spirit of the sound of Earth, Wind & Fire from the late 1970’s/early 1980’s. The music sounds fresh and the band sounds reinvigorated.
Philip Bailey, sixty one years young at the time of the recording, still possesses that heavenly falsetto. It is amazing how some singers are able to hold on to their voices while so many others degrade or fizzle out with time. Bailey is in fine form throughout the album’s ten tracks. Maurice White and his presence are missed, but Bailey more than capably handles the bulk of the lead vocals. A host of background singers assist Bailey to fill the void left by White. Among those singers is Philip Bailey’s son Philip D. Bailey.
At six minutes and twenty four seconds Guiding Lights is the album’s longest track. From the moment that the song begins the listener can feel something different in the air. More than any song on the album, Guiding Lights fully carries the torch of classic Earth, Wind & Fire. If you close your eyes it almost feels like it is the late 1970’s. The song could have fit comfortably on All ‘N All (1977) or I Am (1979), arguably the band’s best albums. Musically and lyrically the song is full of the mystic so prevalent in the band’s music during their heyday. Ex-band member keyboardist Larry Dunn is partially responsible for the music’s feel. His sublime keyboard textures lay the foundation for the rest of the band to build upon.
Where would an Earth, Wind & Fire album be without horns. As a collective the Phoenix Horns are long gone. But there is an exceptional group of horn players in place for Now, Then & Forever. The horns are quite subtle on Guiding Lights, but they are a vital aspect of the music. The horns combine with subdued, but funky, guitar riffs, Verdine White’s rock solid bass lines and Dunn’s keyboards. These elements form a lush musical canvas that carries the song.
Bailey spends the bulk of the song beguiling the listener with his ageless vocals. The last chorus gives way to a mighty keyboard solo by Larry Dunn. Dunn utilizes keyboard tones and techniques that would make some progressive rock keyboardists envious. The song concludes with an extended keyboard solo that is an absolute pleasure to get lost within. The solo, nearly two minutes long, takes the listener on long, slow journey. It is not a frantic solo, Dunn takes his time making a soothing musical statement.
To varying degrees I have been a lifelong fan of Earth, Wind & Fire. Growing up the band was a staple on the radio stations that my parents tuned into. My father had a nice sized music collection, which included Earth, Wind & Fire albums. I recall being mesmerized by some of the band’s album covers as a child. When I entered my teenage years and had a few dollars of my own it was just a matter of time until I bought a few Earth, Wind & Fire CDs. Years later in my late twenties was when I truly dove into the band’s catalog and cemented my fandom.
Earth, Wind & Fire has had their ups and downs over the course of their long career. The 1990’s to the early 2000’s saw the band release a string of competent, but lackluster, albums. I have heard all of the albums from this period and I own a few of them. Overall what I have heard has not compelled me to purchase their last few albums. That all changed when the band released Now, Then & Forever. The album, released forty plus years after their debut album, proved that they are still a band with something to say. From start to finish Now, Then & Forever is an exceptional Earth, Wind & Fire album with Guiding Lights as its centerpiece.