At their worst, Earth, Wind and Fire indulge in some of the most pretentious excesses in current black music. As on past Earth, Wind and Fire records, All 'n All is filled with leaded brotherhood platitudes, Star Trek sci-fi and stiffly poetic love songs. This sounds overwrought and depressing (and maybe it is). But there's a catch: I like the record, for like much current black music, All 'n All elicits a schizophrenic response. If the album represents some of the worst in black music, it also has more than its share of the best.
Earth, Wind and Fire's prime mover, Maurice White, is a former Chess Records session drummer, and his rhythmic sense is one of the group's redeeming features. The rhythm tracks on All 'n All are often enough to salvage the most convoluted and awkward lyrics. "Serpentine Fire," a song about the spinal life-center philosophy of many Eastern religions, is a simple tango spiced by a subtle funk base and the incessant clanging of a cowbell. Other songs incorporate snatches of supple James Brown bass lines, delicate Latin beats and hard, insistent funk vamps.
White's production virtues don't end there, though. The lyrics of "Fantasy" ("Come to see, victory, in the land called fantasy") may be hard to swallow, but the music is as close to elegance as any funk song has come. Voices and a light touch of strings suddenly appear over a choppy, propulsive track, swell and swoop, only to disappear at the snap of a finger and pop up moments later for an exciting, powerful finale. White also utilizes an odd instrumental mix that gives equal emphasis to percussion (except the bass drum, which is usually played down), bass, rhythm guitars and stabbing, staccato horn bursts. The result is light but substantial, and it's become a model for many other bands.
Escapism and fantasy are prominent in the lyrics of many soft-soul groups, but usually (intentionally or otherwise) they're used humorously, or at least with tongue in cheek. At times, Earth, Wind and Fire is also capable of such fluffy warmth; in fact, torchy love ballads sung by Verdine White, Maurice's brother, have become a recent trademark. Verdine often sounds like a straining Eddie Kendricks and here, on "I'll Write a Song for You," which is distressingly close to MOR, he has the type of lush romantic vehicle that one wishes Kendricks still employed.
But that warmth isn't always felt, and despite the musical gloss, much of Earth, Wind and Fire's escapism seems unintentionally obsessive and desperate. It's easy to be seduced by the artfulness and grace of Earth, Wind and Fire's music and accept it for its craftsmanship and listenability. On that level, the group is challenging and fun. It's also easy to be cynical about a line like, "Jupiter, come from the galaxy/I want to meet you, to make you free," which seems as potentially dishonest and escapist as shooting dope.
There's a strange contrast to be drawn between All 'n All and Sly Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On. Riot was druggy, down and honest. All'n All is flashy, bright and fanciful. Sly saw what he didn't want to see. The Earth, Wind and Fire album is like looking at yourself in the mirror and finding that nothing is there. Maybe that's what makes All 'n All so compelling — and scary.