Chicago has made a tradition of titling its albums with Roman numerals, and in recent years co-naming them with words suggesting a theme or concept. The latest from the ensemble of Windy City origin is Now (Chicago XXXVI), a collection of new material recorded in soundchecks and off-days with a mobile unit while the band was on the road. A constant on the touring docket, the group wanted the message clear to its fans that it was still capable of writing viable and relevant songs, and with few exceptions, it has succeeded.
The opening title track glides effortlessly, punctuated by those classic horn lines and glistening harmonies, reminding why this band is among the most commercially accomplished in the history of American music. Familiar and smooth, but with plenty of energy, it’s a tone-setter for the 10 songs that follow. Tricky is the terrain, appealing to the core that has grown with the group as it resides in its sixth decade of existence, yet finding ways to excite and entice audiences anew. Mostly, Now hits its mark, whether nestled in balladry (“Love Lives On”), jazz frenzy (“Nice Girl”), or adult-contemporary rock (“Something’s Coming I Know”), stamped bold and bright are the trademarks.
It doesn’t all work. The heavy-handed political overtones of “America,” odd World Music vibe of “Naked in the Garden of Allah,” and the somewhat stiffly electronic “Another Trippy Day,” don’t quite sit up and declare themselves to be required listening. Perhaps suffering by comparison, this trio prevents the album from a top-to-bottom win.
Chicago’s lengthy history has endured the early death of a massively talented guitarist in Terry Kath, the departure of Peter Cetera- his voice one many associate with the band’s signature sound- and the ever-shifting tastes of the record-buying public, yet throughout has retained the soul and heart in founding members Robert Lamm, Lee Loughnane, James Pankow, and Walter Parazaider. It’s more than enough to keep the show on the road. It’s also more than enough on Now to deliver another album worthy of its makers.