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. A lot of big pop songs in 2013 have been wrestling with the spirit of 1978 or 1981, and Earth, Wind & Fire nestles easily next to Daft Punk, Robin Thicke, and the new Roots/Elvis Costello collaboration.
The band still has the thick, fluttering funk that made them such a power in the ’70s. Various funk schools battled through that decade — Isaac Hayes had majesty, Barry White had sex, James Brown had brute force, the Ohio Players had sweat. At their best, Earth, Wind & Fire seemed to lap these competitors, making Isaac Hayes look slow and turning James Brown into a graceless fuddy-duddy. They applied huge hooks, sweet harmonies, and endless layers of syncopation to aching ballads or double time struts with equal ease. And the music stayed light and elusive. Its heft never prevented it from winking.
They haven’t lost a step. Now, Then & Forever has all the old colors and grooves, an impeccable rhythm section, prominent guitars, and indomitable horns that trace and re-trace motifs, dancing rings around everything. “Guiding Lights” is a break-beat driven falsetto ballad that stretches the drama out past six minutes and includes a scream at the 4:18 mark that shouldn’t be humanly possible for any man above the age of 30. (Phillip Bailey, famous for handling Earth, Wind &Fire’s high notes, is more than twice that age.) “Sign On” pushes “for a better way,” the old men still get aroused as they lope through “The Rush” — “when I think of you/ you know the rush is on” — and they include a dreamy Latin track (“Belo Horizonte”) and a looser, weirder lullaby (“Splashes”) just like they might on 1977’s All ‘N All.
But everywhere there are touches of the modern. The muted brass in “Guiding Lights” touches on the early ‘00s neo-soul that Earth, Wind & Fire helped inspire, and “Got To Be Love” twinkles its way into a funk vamp that sounds like something the Roots throw together on Wise Up Ghost. The flat beat to “Dance Floor” isn’t far from Drake’s “Hold On We’re Going Home,” though Drake would likely consider the guitars that embellish the track too showy. “Night Of My Life” seems to mix bits of Don Henley’s “Boys Of Summer”, a sturdy rhythm, and heavy riffing into something that, in the hands of a female pop singer with a powerful voice, could shoot up the pop charts. The falsetto vocals here sound like what Pharrell was shooting for when he sang on the Daft Punk album.
Earth, Wind & Fire get to enjoy a rare privilege: their past sound has come back into favor, so without much struggle, they create songs that fit perfectly in the present. It won’t be like this forever, but they’ve certainly got now and then covered.