A dream last week: I was walking through a crowded marketplace in a city that seemed to be Paris although I’ve never been there. I was singing to myself and everyone I passed was singing the same song, softly to themselves. It was “The World’s a Masquerade” from the Earth, Wind & Fire album, especially the repeated final lines, “The world’s a masquerade/ Can the whole world be lying?” I thought to myself, “That must be a very popular song,” and then the dream moved on to other things. What does it mean, doctor? Was the dream doubling back on itself, the song commenting on its own apparent popularity? Can the whole world be lying?
Been having a lot of music dreams lately but this one’s not too surprising since I’ve been playing the Earth, Wind & Fire album pretty constantly for the past week, certainly beyond all expectations. With a cover like this one — the eight men in the group shirtless, the one woman all in white, surrounded by a starburst arrangement of cut flowers, repeated with slight variations in the centerfold — I’m surprised I even broke the shrinkwrap. And this group started in Chicago?
Then there are the lyrics, printed on the record sleeve. By the time I read them, I was already so taken with the purity of the music that the often cloying spirituality of the lyrics (“Maybe if we learn to pray, life would lend us sunshiny days”; “… a song in yo’ heart/ Most every day, is what/ You need, along the way” could only be slightly dismaying. Their message is basically spiritual but if their lyrics are weak and, at times, awkward, the music and the voices-as-music are strong enough to convey that feeling with a minimum of words.
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The vocals are breathy and soothing without being too ethereal; altogether, they sound like a cosmic choir and generate a Sly Stone effect. At its best, the music is fluid and enveloping, and most distinctive when Maurice White is playing an electrified kalimba — a small, hand-held African instrument, like a thumb piano — which produces delightfully liquid runs of notes that have become the group’s trademark. Yet the sound is never so spiritual that it isn’t firmly grounded — guitarist Johnny Graham, bass player Verdine White and drummer Ralph Johnson are particularly good — and tight enough to hit big with the new boom of soul discotheques (where “Power,” a long instrumental cut from the group’s last LP, Last Days and Time, was enormously popular).
Most of side two is taken up with a cut entitled “Zanzibar,” an intricate, jazz-based composition that, while never dull, doesn’t fully hold my attention except in states of altered consciousness when anything sounds fascinating. But the rest of Head to the Sky is quite satisfying. The title cut, with the gentle admonition to “keep your head in faith’s atmosphere,” has a luscious, luminous quality and “The World’s a Masquerade” (“Everybody, everybody wears another face”) may not be on everyone’s lips yet, but it is the stuff dreams are made of.