As the quintessential American band of the middle and late Seventies, Earth, Wind and Fire neither set trends nor adhered to them. Danceable but not disco, tough but not funk, multi-tiered and brassy in an age of economical sound, the band’s records sold by the crateful — not only because they were shamelessly slick and commercial, but also because their buoyancy was so sincere that both blacks and whites could claim them.
After a four-year hiatus, the name Earth, Wind and Fire is back on a new album, but all Touch the World seems to be is a mending of fences between the group’s two original principals, Maurice White and Philip Bailey. No other band member is listed on the album, nearly half of the material is written and arranged by outsiders, and there’s nothing besides the vocal trade-offs between White and Bailey that stands out — nothing quite as beatific as “That’s the Way of the World” or as swinging and shocking as the band’s cover of “Got to Get You into My Life.”
Still, while no revelation, Touch the World shows that White and Bailey’s groove hasn’t lost step, nor has their politics gone askew. The single “System of Survival” proves that you don’t have to wear synths on your sleeve to succeed in dance clubs. The guitars simply ring as White’s voice cuts underneath a story — the best EWF songs all seem to have a plot — of the working class paying the price and dancing to stay sane: it’s a “Staying Alive” for the Eighties, both topical and desperate.
Whether singing about politics or love, White and Bailey complement each other. Bailey’s falsetto sounds as pure and piercing as ever, but he often needs White’s sly, low counterpunch to bring him back from the stratosphere. This vocal prowess elevates some bland L.A. schlock (“Money Tight” and “Every Now and Then”) that might otherwise have landed on a Chicago or Toto album.
Even the title song, with its well meaning message — reach out to drug addicts and pregnant teens, “help them to believe” — seems a bit minor compared with, say, the O’Jays recent “Still Missing,” a provocative and terrifying study of kidnapped children. Yet White and Bailey’s words were always simple, delivered with a lot of pride and passion, enough of which they’ve regained to make Earth, Wind and Fire once more significant and timely.