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Sunday, December 31, 2017

Chicago: Chicago V

CHICAGO V (1972)

1) A Hit By Varèse; 2) All Is Well; 3) Now That You've Gone; 4) Dialogue, Pt. 1; 5) Dialogue, Pt. 2; 6) While The City Sleeps; 7) Saturday In The Park; 8) State Of The Union; 9) Goodbye; 10) Alma Mater.

It feels weird to state that, after three sprawling, excessive, bombastic, narcissistic double LPs in a row, Chicago's first compact, restrained, «humble» single LP feels a little... disappointing. In terms of style, Chicago V is not at all a departure from the band's classic sound: still firmly in the mildly-experimental jazz-rock ballpark, with tasteful touches of funk, soul, and pop and no signs of cheap sentimentality. It was also an unexpected commercial mega-hit, taking them to the top of the US charts for the first time — see, all it took was to lower the cost from double to single vinyl to get things going — and, heck, it may have been the only album ever with the name Varèse in one of the song titles to achieve such popularity with the average buyer.

Yet, strange enough, I have always found it fairly hard to get into it. On the surface, it's all good: there's brave sonic experimentation (ʽA Hit By Varèseʼ could not have not contained any, right?), multi-part mini-suites merging jazz, funk, and R&B like there was no tomorrow (ʽNow That You've Goneʼ), a couple vehicles for Kath's guitar fireworks (ʽDialogueʼ), bombastic anthems (ʽState Of The Unionʼ), and a catchy pop single (ʽSaturday In The Parkʼ). However, somehow much, if not most of this, ends up sounding like rather limp background muzak to my ears, with few moments forcing you to pay attention.

It is not quite clear what happened, but I guess everybody is entitled to a bit of burnout after three double albums in a row. Even the catchy pop single, first time ever in Chicago history so far, does the unexplainable — straightforwardly rips off Paul McCartney's ʽYou Won't See Meʼ for its base melody, though the overall mood of the piece is inverted, so that instead of wistful melancholy we have tepid, toothless, furry-cuddly excitement (it was reportedly inspired by a walk Lamm took through Central Park — as somebody who really enjoys a good walk through Central Park whenever I am in the neighborhood, I can certainly relate, but there is no guarantee that the feeling will necessarily translate to music). The song is not necessarily worse than any of Lamm's previous optimistic, sunny pop singles, but the direct lifting of the chords is jarring: truly, there is just no need to shove their «poor man's Beatles» side so directly in our faces.

As for the bluesier / jazzier / funkier stuff, it just sort of sits there. None of these tracks seem to have the same level of creative ambition, nor the same amount of energy and passion as the earlier records — compared to the I-II-III punch, the band sounds tired (which they probably were) and out of ideas. Even the ʽVarèseʼ thing, as nominally experimental and «anti-commer­cial» as it is, seems more like a desperately self-conscious gesture — "okay, boys, this doesn't really work out so well, let's pull ourselves together and concoct something that Frank Zappa could be proud of and put it out front, so no piece of shit critic can lay a finger on us!" It is not awful, it just lacks a sense of purpose, because the album as a whole is not in the avantgarde plane of things, and there does not seem to be much of a plan behind the music.

Things get a little better with ʽDialogueʼ, a two-part suite with Kath's best lead guitar parts on the album and the whole band whipping itself up into a socially conscious frenzy ("we can make it happen, we can change the world now") — and even so, the experience seems perfunctory, not even on the level of passion that you could see on ʽIt Better End Soonʼ. At least Kath's work gives it an edge over the utterly dull six minutes of ʽState Of The Unionʼ, a paralytic funky monster, with Cetera stubbornly clinging to the same bass figure and the brass section huffing and puffing at the brick house of boredom.

Perhaps most of the blame for this should be laid upon Lamm, singlehandedly credited for eight out of ten tracks on the album; but the problem is that everybody, including simple players, seems tired and sparkless — even Pankow's ʽNow That You've Goneʼ is a rather stereotypical piece of R&B, whose formulaically desperate lyrics ("how can I go on in emptiness, feeling so alone every day") would feel strangely at odds with the brash liveliness of the arrangement, were not this liveliness itself so stiff and robotic. Finally, Kath ends things with ʽAlma Materʼ, a bland, preachy piano ballad that is oh so not saved by its ponderous lyrics ("we must not lose control / of the possibility of the discovery / that would let everybody see / that we were just meant to be" — what is this, Hegel for dummies?).

As subjective as this impression truly is — I doubt that even a professional musicologist could have transparently described the significant differences between I-II-III and V, since they transcend basic melody and harmony — it leaves me with no choice but to give the album a decisive thumbs down, and mark it as the beginning of the decline: most importantly, it shows that Chicago eventually perished as a respectable act not because it had betrayed its winning formula for sap and pap, but precisely because it drifted towards sap and pap upon becoming incapable of maintaining that formula. «Objectivists» who judge Chicago on a two-basket basis («jazz-rocky Chicago = good, sentimental poppy Chicago = bad») will probably want to disagree, but you'd really, really have to love jazz-rocky Chicago in order to allow Chicago V all the time it takes to grow on you and lure you in with alleged subtle nuances.

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