The songs of Earth, Wind and Fire combine pure urban fantasy with the type of facile brotherhood messages that also crop up in the music of Stevie Wonder and the O’Jays. But Earth, Wind and Fire wraps its sermons on universal love in fashionable mysticism. One has only to look as far as the cover of their current album to see the trappings: cleancut and dressed in white, the group stands, eyes closed, in positions of cosmic significance, while three white pyramids loom in the background.
Earth, Wind and Fire has been one of the few groups to successfully incorporate jazz flourishes with its brassy brand of funk. Combined with immaculate production and bandleader/coproducer Maurice White’s knack for catchy melodies, this makes the band entertaining beyond its cosmic pretenses. In fact, “Getaway,” a current pop smash, is EWF at its best. The theme is in line with urban escapist classics like “Up on the Roof” and “World of Fantasy,” with pyramid mumbo-jumbo temporarily laid aside. A propulsive funk track laced with dizzying changes makes the song one of the most sophisticated pop hits in recent memory.
The rest of Spirit does not fare as well. Philip Bailey’s falsetto, which was stirring on “Reasons” and “Keep Your Head to the Sky,” sounds as nasal and whiny as the most flaccid post-Thom Bell work of the Stylistics’ Russell Thompkins. White has also chosen to incorporate a raft of session musicians, and the bloated ensemble has a hard time disguising lines like “True love is here to find simple as number 9.” Though most of Spirit maintains a high level of artistic competence, I find the new album to be like a bean-sprout salad — undeniably nutritious, but hardly filling.