2015 marked the 40th anniversary of the release of Earth, Wind & Fire’s (EWF) most popular studio album That’s the Way of the World (TTWOTW). This, their sixth album, has been certified triple platinum selling over 3,000,000 copies. It included the number one pop and R&B hit,“Shining Star,” which won the band their first Grammy Award, and was the third best-selling pop album of 1975. It was also included on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
This album was well-received upon its release, but also remains relevant for the modern listener. Its understanding of human nature makes it timeless. Its lyrics show that although humans are flawed beings, they tend to seek the good. Individually, some of its tracks are encouraging while others discuss love, appeal to the divine, and depict human vice, but all combined contain a comprehensive understanding of what it means to be a human being. The album paints a picture of man as fundamentally good, yet imperfect.
“Shining Star” may be the song on this album most well-known to modern audiences. The judicious use of horns, inspiring lyrics, and upbeat tempo encourages the listener. Its sound signature aligns with the model for pop music, but in the context of the whole album, its existence is justified as part of a larger design. This and the other upbeat songs are ones which inspire and elevate the mood of the listener.They promote viewing oneself in a positive way. This positive view of self is the beginning of a change in perspective needed to implement the wide-scale societal change that will be called for in the title track.
The title track is the one which provides some context for the inclusion of these seemingly superficial songs.In the title track,EWF describes the harsh realities of the world.This includes the life of a child who is corrupted by the negative aspects of society. He starts “with a heart of gold,” but “the way of the world makes his heart grow cold.”There will be difficulties in life, but to harken back to that positive, innocent state of youth allows man to cast aside the negative effects society may have on the soul.This is clearly a timeless message. Every generation believes that society is getting worse as time goes on. That may or may not be true, but there is an effect on all people brought on in a world that encourages vice and discourages faith. “TTWOTW” seeks to remedy this through a reminder of how people are fundamentally good, even when negatively affected by their circumstances. This track serves as a counterpoint to the more upbeat tracks that are meant to be inspiring and makes those less deep songs have a greater meaning than they would on their own. It shows the problem and what must be done, and the upbeat songs encourage the listener.
Two of the other tracks describe the pinnacle of humanity by making listeners reflect on themself in ways that upbeat positive songs do not. “All About Love” describes love as something beautiful from within and unique to humans. To share love with others is special and cannot be replicated when alone. Love is natural and EWF wants the listener to understand this and not allow material goods and professions to take away from humanity. One of the ways people judge others is based on their wealth, and that wealth dictates their position in society. Society encourages the success of the individual which isolates him from his neighbor.The band advocates a form of universalism in which the dignity of all people is respected and man cares for his neighbor. EWF wants to discourage the focus on the individual and encourage the listener to understand the value of every person.A person’s ability to love is further enhanced through the recognition of the beauty of the natural world as well as that in others. This song wants to show that love is a uniquely human ability, but is also one which can be misunderstood. Philip Bailey’s searing falsetto headlines the landmark song, “Reasons,” which addresses lust rather than love. This ballad describes a man and woman who want sex and are afraid their feelings may get in the way.This outcome is certainly likely to happen as the physical act will prove unfulfilling if the description of human nature provided in the other tracks of the album is accurate. Through this acknowledgement of sex being something more than a physical act, the band is showing the bond among man and woman is more than skin deep. A strong bond is based on love. Lustful desire is only temporary and not the basis for true happiness and commitment.
That’s the Way of the World is timeless because it addresses the fundamentals of human nature.It describes the faults that come with us imperfect beings, but it does so in the context of a work which is encouraging overall.If it were an album merely criticizing the political climate of the day or appealing to one specific faith, it would not be an album with a universal, timeless message. This album is one that calls for change on the personal level to affect society as a whole rather than merely blame society for all of the world’s issues. This is the reason that there are upbeat songs interspersed between the more serious songs. They combine to inspire but also make the listener understand that he is fundamentally good, but flawed. Those are admittedly imperfect grounds for hope, but that’s the way of the world.