By Christian Perez
Imagine the perfect band.
For some, that might involve massive guitars, pounding percussion, and vocalists that hit astronomically high notes. Others may be picturing a traditional ensemble, draped in the velvety colors of the symphonic orchestra. You might even prefer the artist’s focus on songwriting instead of musical skill!
My idea of the perfect band comes in the form of Chicago. Not only is their individual musicianship excellent, but their collective knowledge and application of jazz sets them apart from other rock groups from the 60s-80s. They found a way to seamlessly blend the intricate harmonic devices of that genre with an accessible approach to songwriting and lyricism.
While Chicago 17 maintains that essential integrity, this album doesn’t always stay consistent in terms of re-imagining the 80s pop formula. Some songs fare better than others, but the overall vibe seems much more manufactured and produced than their earlier jazz-rock works (such as Chicago V).
The opening song of this album is a wonderful example of this supposition. “Stay The Night” sits in this strange middle ground for me. The guitars, synths, and drums hit harder than a brick wall, but the rather odd delivery of the lackluster lyrics brings the whole track down a couples of notches. There’s just not enough depth to this song to keep me engaged, and that tarnished the initial impression I got from the excellent instrumental track.
However, the album gets progressively better after the opening.
Take for example, one of my favorites off of the album, “We Can Stop The Hurtin'”. It directly proceeds “Stay The Night”, and immediately lifted my hopes for Chicago’s seventeenth collection. It opens with an arpeggiated synth bass, a funky clean guitar, and a bare drum beat. Robert Lamm starts his verse by describing the rather desolate condition of society, but transitions into the harmonically-dense chorus by admitting that “If we found a way to reconcile, we could stop the hurtin’ for a while”. I’d recommend that you give this track a listen!
I couldn’t really complete this review without mentioning the two hit ballads off of this album: “Hard Habit to Break” and “You’re The Inspiration”. These are some of my favorite songs of all time, and I’d like to share why these stand out to me.
“Hard Habit to Break” is one of the most intricate power ballads I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to. In terms of the song’s composition, I find that Steve Kipner keeps the song interesting by changing the keys many times, as well as emphasizing his wonderful lyrical contributions. Of course, this song wouldn’t have been as successful and as poignant without the fantastic vocal performances provided by Peter Cetera and Bill Champlin! The unique timbre of both of these performers only supplement the excellence of their vocal abilities.
Performed at the Venetian Theatre in Las Vegas.
The song “You’re The Inspiration” follows a similar standard in performance. However, this song serves as a wonderful vehicle for showcasing Cetera’s vocal ability and his skills as songwriting (with a little bit of help from producer David Foster). I don’t believe I can properly explain to you all how great this song is, so here’s a link to a live performance of the song:
Peter Cetera performs this song, independent of Chicago, for the DVD Peter Cetera with Special Guest Amy Grant.
Overall, I think that this album deserves a listen, but keep in mind that the songwriting and 80s aesthetic can sometimes feel both underwhelming and overwhelming. The high points on this album are glorious, but the low points seem to bring you down as well.
Here’s the album on Spotify:
Chicago 17 came out on May 14, 1984 to massive sales (1). It became the group’s best selling album of all time, and cemented the aging group’s musical influence for years to come. The singles from this album include “Stay the Night”, “Hard Habit to Break”, “You’re The Inspiration”, and “Along Comes A Woman”.