Earth, Wind & Fire: Now, Then & Forever

Earth, Wind & Fire sound effortlessly modern.

Earth, Wind & Fire

Now, Then & Forever

Label: Legacy
US Release Date: 2013-09-10
UK Release Date: 2013-10-07

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.







Greta Gerwig's Adaptation of Loneliness in Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women'

Greta Gerwig's film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women strays from the dominating theme of existential loneliness.


The Band's Discontented Third LP, 1970's 'Stage Fright', Represented a World Braving Calamity

Released 50 years ago this month, the Band's Stage Fright remains a marker of cultural unrest not yet remedied.


Natalie Schlabs Starts Living the Lifetime Dream With "That Early Love" (premiere + interview)

Unleashing the power of love with a new single and music video premiere, Natalie Schlabs is hoping to spread the word while letting her striking voice be heard ahead of Don't Look Too Close, the full-length album she will release in October.


Rufus Wainwright Makes a Welcome Return to Pop with 'Unfollow the Rules'

Rufus Wainwright has done Judy Garland, Shakespeare, and opera, so now it's time for Rufus to rediscover Rufus on Unfollow the Rules.


Jazz's Denny Zeitlin and Trio Get Adventurous on 'Live at Mezzrow'

West Coast pianist Denny Zeitlin creates a classic and adventurous live set with his long-standing trio featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson on Live at Mezzrow.


The Inescapable Violence in Netflix's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui)

Fernando Frías de la Parra's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui) is part of a growing body of Latin American social realist films that show how creativity can serve a means of survival in tough circumstances.


Arlo McKinley's Confessional Country/Folk Is Superb on 'Die Midwestern'

Country/folk singer-songwriter Arlo McKinley's debut Die Midwestern marries painful honesty with solid melodies and strong arrangements.


Viserra Combine Guitar Heroics and Female Vocals on 'Siren Star'

If you ever thought 2000s hard rock needed more guitar leads and solos, Viserra have you covered with Siren Star.


Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts Honor Their Favorite Songs With "Oh No" (premiere)

Ryan Hamilton's "Oh No" features guest vocals from Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo, and appears on Nowhere to Go But Everywhere out 18 September.


Songwriter Shelly Peiken Revisits "Bitch" for '2.0' Album (premiere)

A monster hit for Meredith Brooks in the late 1990s, "Bitch" gets a new lease on life from its co-creator, Shelly Peiken. "It's a bit moodier than the original but it touts the same universal message," she says.


Leila Sunier Delivers Stunning Preface to New EP via "Sober/Without" (premiere)

With influences ranging from Angel Olsen to Joni Mitchell and Perfume Genius, Leila Sunier demonstrates her compositional prowess on the new single, "Sober/Without".


Speed the Plough Members Team with Mayssa Jallad for "Rush Hour" (premiere)

Caught in a pandemic, Speed the Plough's Baumgartners turned to a faraway musical friend for a collaboration on "Rush Hour" that speaks to the strife and circumstance of our time.


Great Peacock Stares Down Mortality With "High Wind" (premiere + interview)

Southern rock's Great Peacock offer up a tune that vocalist Andrew Nelson says encompasses their upcoming LP's themes. "You are going to die one day. You can't stop the negative things life throws at you from happening. But, you can make the most of it."


The 80 Best Albums of 2015

Travel back five years ago when the release calendar was rife with stellar albums. 2015 offered such an embarrassment of musical riches, that we selected 80 albums as best of the year.


Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.


The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.


Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.


King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.