Release Date: Sep 10, 2013
Record label: Legacy
Genre(s): R&B, Adult Contemporary R&B
Advances in technology in the 80s sounded the death-knell of so many great groups; the Earth, Wind And Fire of 1985’s Electric Universe was similar to the Chic heard on 1983’s Believer. The machines may have reduced studio costs, but the music, usually given space to breathe with organic instrumentation, was all but stifled. With Maurice White retired due to Parkinson’s, EWF centre around a nucleus of Philip Bailey, Verdine White and Ralph Johnson, and their first album of new material in a decade, Now, Then And Forever, is a splendid diversion that recalls – in spirit alone, of course – Rick Rubin’s recent work with Black Sabbath.
After almost 45 years of delivering their groundbreaking and commercially uber-successful fusion of funk, soul, jazz, rock and world rhythms, it might seem only natural to forgive Earth, Wind & Fire for resting on their laurels and going the way of too many of their era's brethren, recording little, if anything, of note while recycling past hits on the lucrative oldies casino circuit. You wouldn't expect an album as pertinent and vibrant as Now, Then & Forever (their 20th studio offering), but effervescent opening cut "Sign On," with its potent rhythmic drive, infectious chorus and sinewy horn charts, is vintage Earth, Wind & Fire, in the best sense, delivering a joyous call to consciousness and unity that's simultaneously refined and spirited. Devoid of the guest appearances and collaborations that cluttered 2005's noble Illumination, Now, Then & Forever showcases a purer distillation of the group's vibe.
It would be easy for Earth, Wind & Fire, one of the best funk groups of all time, to rest on their laurels: tour occasionally for some extra dough, play the classics to get the old folks dancing, record albums that chop up those same classics and spit them back out again. (If you listen, for example, to the Temptations’ “Stay”, from 1998, you may notice a certain melodic similarity to “My Girl”.) But Now, Then & Forever, the band’s first album since 2005’s Illumination, resists this temptation. In fact, the most surprising thing about Now, Then & Forever is how up-to-date Earth, Wind &Fire sound.
Down to a core trio of Philip Bailey, Verdine White, and Ralph Johnson, EWF made their first album since 2005's Illumination with a little help from Larry Dunn and guidance from Maurice White. The Whites, Bailey, and Dunn, along with Al McKay, were inducted into the Songwriting Hall of Fame in 2010, yet Bailey co-wrote only two songs here, while Dunn contributed to one. In addition to Johnson's two co-compositions, a long list of writers was involved, with Bailey's son Philip Doron Bailey given the heaviest load beside the likes of Siedah Garrett and Lee "Son of Leroy" Hutson, Jr.