Make It a Double: Chicago, CHICAGO III

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Though it’s probably the least commercial of Chicago’s first five studio records, CHICAGO III still climbed the album chart (reaching Number Two) and stands today as another example of the band’s ambition and creative power. For one, it was their third studio double album in two years, and was once again full to bursting with fresh takes on members’ classical, jazz and rock influences.

Chicago had been on the road for about a year before entering the studio, and the lyrics they were writing revealed the strain of their experiences. Robert Lamm’s cynicism with the music industry is immediately apparent in “Sing a Mean Tune Kid.” “Play the bad song, kid,” he sings. “Everyone’s the blues / And the people never know you're only lying … Soon the groupies will start rolling by your door.” Meanwhile, Terry Kath’s roiling guitar figures form underneath a solid wall of horns. Later in the song, his solo cuts loose of song’s constructs, doubtless knocking studio furniture around with the sheer force of his fleet-fingered expression. It’s a nine-minute cut that starts the record with all manner of intensity. 

Lamm’s side-long “Travel Suite” presses deeper into his time on tour. It’s a six-part extended composition about the road — its beauty, its detriments, the exhaustion that comes from being out there too long, the relief of going home. “Flight 602” begins the suite with close harmonies — so close, they could be mistaken for a Crosby, Stills & Nash outtake. “Motorboat to Mars” is a percussion workout by drummer Danny Seraphine; it serves as a segue into “Free,” a hard-driving rock song and the biggest single on the record. Even within the head-bobbing rhythm and loud guitars, one can sense the weariness of the band; when they sing, “I just want to be free,” it’s an existential freedom they’re talking about — freedom from boredom on the road. Not exactly “I have a dream” material, but the song moves. The other suite song with lyrics, “At the Sunrise,” finds the singer intensely missing someone (“She gave meaning to my words / She helped me find my way”), but recognizing his path to her is helping him find his way home again.

Terry Kath contributes a shorter suite, “An Hour in the Shower,” which provides a step-by-step walk through his morning. Kath extols the virtues of spam, goes through a day of work, then back home to sleep and dream, before having to face the morning blues once more. Lyrically, it’s pretty tame stuff — and not as progressive nor as ambitious as “Travel Suite” — but Kath sings with great conviction, as if imparting a truth handed down in stone.

CHICAGO III takes the ambitions the band revealed in their first two albums and expands upon them, providing a glimpse into the members’ growth as composers and performers. While their next studio releases would have bigger hits, it’s unlikely they would have had what it took to make them, without first laying down the foundation represented here.

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