Saturday, July 16, 2022

When Veterans Surprise You

Scott D. Parker

I was happily surprised yesterday, but I wasn’t expecting it.

The veteran “rock band with horns,” Chicago, released their 38th album yesterday, Born for This Moment. For a band celebrating their 55th year, that’s darn impressive. Chicago is one of my two favorite bands and I eagerly waited to spin that new album yesterday. In fact, with it being a work day, I woke at 5:30am just so I could listen to the album before the workday began. Later that day, my son ventured out and purchased the CD.

Being a writer, I documented my experience in real time. It’s a text file in which I wrote down my thoughts and feelings as the album played. Without the liner notes, the only thing I had to go on was the music itself. Isn’t that basically the way to experience a first listen?

Anyway, I knew that this new album would likely be the band’s last. It’s been eight years since Chicago released an album of new, non-Christmas material—although I wholeheartedly contend that the 2019 Chicago Christmas album was mostly original as well, seeing as it featured seven original songs that merely used the vocabulary of Christmas.

Prior to yesterday, Chicago had released two singles, “If This is Goodbye” and “Firecracker.” The former is a modern-sounding song with lots of vocal overdubs while the latter certainly has that Chicago vibe to it. Other cuts on the album also contained that certain signature Chicago sound. Hey, no surprise there, right? There’s a reason they’ve been successful for more than half a century. And some of these sounds are so good.

But then this band anchored by three original members in their seventies throws the listener more than one curve ball. Some of the songs feature programmed drums and rhythms that we’re used to hearing on songs by artists young enough to be their grand or great-grandchildren. In the song “You’ve Got to Believe,” the chorus is something you could easily hear Justin Timberlake sing. Seriously. Founding singer Robert Lamm even tries a few different things with his voice, voicing some of his songs with a rougher style.

It’s not just newer, modern instrumental and beats that stand out. For the first time, there’s a violin solo on one of the slower tunes. And for the first time since 1978, there’s an extended flute section, complete with a solo.

As I wrote a few weeks back, I’m a big fan of legacy artists acknowledging their age and life experiences. Up until now, that’s been a rarity for a Chicago album. No longer. We finally get them looking backward and celebrating their lives and careers, but we also get some forward-thinking music. If this is indeed the last Chicago album, then this collection of songs left me with some bittersweet tears as well as a feeling of surprise.

Circling back to writers, it got me to wondering how often veteran writers deliver a book or a story that surprises us readers. Stephen King does it pretty regularly, writing pretty much whatever he wants but with a willingness to try something new.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with finding a formula and sticking to it. Heck, Chicago did that for decades with their ballads. I’m not even sure if I, too, wouldn’t just stick to a formula and cash those checks.

So bravo to those artists and writers who try something new. But I’m still wondering about writers who try something new. Can y’all help with that? The first book that comes to mind is Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island. I know there are more.

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