Maurice White, Earth, Wind and Fire's presiding genius, ranges across popular music like a robber baron, selecting only the tastiest artifacts for his collection. He adapts be-bop horn charts and soul-group harmonies in ways that make the clichés revelatory. He takes simple dance formulas like "Boogie Wonderland" and finds fresh possibilities within them. White even uses big-band allusions that ought to sound fey, but by the time he strips them down, they're absolute muscle and bone.
White sometimes does all this in a single song, and he does it consistently throughout the Earth, Wind and Fire LPs he produces. He also plays drums, sings and writes a fair share of the group's material. As a result, Maurice White makes music whose quality is as high as its market appeal, as accessible as it is innovative. Yet he still hasn't managed the stylistic breakthrough that would rank him with his sources. White remains a lesser artist than Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder or even George Clinton because he seems content to merely flash his skills, never pushing them to the limit. In his hands, formula music gains new vitality. But it remains formula music.
That's why, no matter how seductive the sound, Earth, Wind and Fire is still a conformist band. White's music is always carefully calculated — you never get the sense that he's done anything for the sake of a hot minute. Drained of passion, the group's pretensions of cosmic enlightenment — expressed in ostentatious album titles and graphics — are absurd. Even at his most philosophical, White always retreats to romance, so that songs like "In the Stone" and "Can't Let Go," two of I Am's most ambitious, seem to move backward, starting out transcendent and ending up banal.
This characteristic also undermines some of White's finest qualities. He's a perfect sensualist, but the erotic is strangely beyond him: Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder haven't yet approached the imagination of I Am, but Maurice White can't come up with anything as sexy as "Bad Girls." Ironically, the hedonism of Earth, Wind and Fire has more in common with the bloated pleasures of white Southern California rock than with the more rabid and anarchic blend expressed by East Coast disco groups like the Trammps. That's because White seems to hold back mostly for fear of being uncool — something that never troubles, say, George Clinton.
All this is damnably frustrating, since White clearly has bigger ideas. It might be that he's simply too inarticulate to express them intelligibly. I Am is obviously meant to portend something, but who knows what? Is this Maurice White's vision of paradise?
Masters of my dreams, create a place
To feel, this love of mine
And never hurt no more.
The placement of those lines, from "You and I," at the end of the record would suggest that the song is meant to sum up everything White is trying to communicate. Yet the tune's chorus is so trite that it's almost painful to quote it: "You and I living together/Just you and I groovin' forever — ."
Which is to say that Maurice White may be the next genius of popular music. Or he may be one in a long line of frauds, prepared to hint that he has knowledge of the meaning of life, but forever refusing even to hint at what that meaning might be.