Chicago, one of the most commercially and artistically successful rock bands of all time, finally has a new album, their first studio album of new, non-holiday-oriented material since 2014’s Chicago: Now. Chicago: Born For This Moment is the band’s 38th album, per the band’s website. The numbering seems off because live albums, compilations, holiday collections, and other special releases are included in the group’s official numbering. The band’s first album, Chicago Transit Authority, was released in 1969, and the band has charted over 60 hit singles since then. The original line-up, of which only three members are currently in the band, was inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2016. In 2020 Chicago was given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Born For This Moment covers and blends the main styles that the band has employed during their lengthy career. New ground is not being broken here. The album’s appeal is aimed at Chicago’s two core audiences: the jazz-rock horn band fans of their first wave of fame that lasted from 1969-1978, and their power-ballad wave of hits from 1982 to 1991. Further charting singles have been relegated to the Adult Contemporary charts, indicating that Chicago’s fanbase followed them even as their music was no longer documented by the mainstream Pop charts.
Chicago still routinely tour large venues, either as the sole performance or teamed with other long-term music acts such as Earth, Wind and Fire, and the Beach Boys. These pairings further indicate the audiences to which the band appeals. Yet, Chicago is by no means the stereotypical “Oldies” act, the type of group that becomes a vainglorious nostalgia act. Time and circumstance have not yet been able to get Chicago.
Evidence of Chicago’s combination of mutability within stability has been clearly on display over the last couple of years, culminating in this new release. Chicago has undergone several personnel changes. Brett Simons, their bassist of four years, left in mid-2022. Lou Pardini, keyboardist for the band for over 12 years, left in early 2022. Guitarist Keith Howland, a member for over 25 years, left at the end of 2021. All three are performing on this album to varying degrees. Bruce Gaitsch, the band’s guitarist from the end of 1993 to the start of 1995, makes a guest appearance on a song he co-wrote with Robert Lamm titled “For the Love”. Upheavals in the band are also evident in the production credits, with five of the 14 cuts citing additional “Original Production” credits and other aspects, further indicating the disparate nature of the album’s creation. Various guest artists are on nearly every cut, including Jim Peterik of the groups Ides of March and Survivor, who co-wrote three songs and plays guitar on each.
Born For This Moment‘s sound is remarkably unified, consistent, and unquestionably vibrant. A key unifying feature, the group’s trademark ensemble horn sound (here usually arranged by trombonist James Pankow), is evident on most numbers and predominant on several. Though horn soloing is mostly absent, Pankow provides a welcome exception on “The Mermaid’ Sereia Do Mar”, a composition of Robert Lamm and Marcos Valle that would not have been out of place on Lamm’s sterling 2008 album The Bossa Project. Pankow, recognized for his frequently aggressive solos on classic Chicago numbers, provides a suitably lilting trombone presence on this cut.
Highlights in Chicago: Born For This Moment are as varied as plentiful. The opening title song is a mid-paced effort by Lamm and Peterik that has Peterik’s welcome fingerprints on it in its narrative content and relaxed power-pop sensibilities. A brief intricate horn passage lifts the recording considerably. Another Lamm and Peterik collaboration, aided by producer Joe Thomas titled “Our New York Time”, has an opening reminiscent of the band’s classic song “Beginnings”, but it quickly establishes itself as a nostalgic paeon to a past romance.
There are many guest performers on this record, each adding freshness to the proceedings without dominating Chicago’s recognizable sounds. Peterik’s contributions stand out in this aspect of the collection. Perhaps because of his artistic strengths and tropes, his efforts seem more obvious while blending well with the band. One might expect that these guests would dilute the essence of the band. Instead, they heighten the band’s essence by providing contrast and newness, with Peterik’s additions being the clearest and most successful.
Another of the more adventurous tracks is “Crazy Idea”, featuring a languid funk rhythm that recalls the Chaka Khan and Rufus recording of “Tell Me Something Good” The horns are used especially well here. “Firecracker” finds its groove quickly and is a nice showcase for Chicago’s new vocalist Neil Donnell. It is one of the most vigorous numbers on the collection, with a sound that is relatively unique for the band, making it a stand-out effort.
Depending on one’s taste, other cuts on Chicago: Born For This Moment also have their strong points. Robert Lamm is the MVP of the record, and he gets the closing song, “House on the Hill”. There’s no horn section on this number, but Ray Herrmann provides a nicely interwoven flute solo. The number could have fit on Lamm’s first solo album Skinny Boy from 1974, but is no less welcome here, providing further evidence of Chicago’s continuing and rich legacy.
The first single from the project, released almost two months before the album, was “If This Is Goodbye”. An unusual love ballad, its lyrics at times seem to function as a farewell salutation from the band to their fans. The song’s promotional video images make this aspect more overt. If this is the last album of new material from Chicago, they exit with a welcome and worthy collection that, while it may not enhance their laudable standing (how could it?), or win them a new generation of fans, does nothing to diminish their reputation. Chicago’s Born For This Moment demonstrates that the long-standing band will not just coast to the finish line.