New Chicago albums don’t come along very often anymore. Born for this Moment (aka Chicago XXXVIII) is their first in eight years, not counting 2019’s Christmas album. But no matter how many years fall in between, we’re always prone to wonder which Chicago we’re going to get. The brass-rock act has gone through several incarnations during its 55 years, after all. There were the pioneering and sometimes free-form adventures of the ’70s mixed with polished, chart-worthy singles, and then the even more commercial, multiplatinum achievements of Chicago 16 and 17 after the turn of the decade. It’s been a diverse five and a half decades, so any turn makes sense on any given new outing.
Born for This Moment hews to the middle of the road, with plenty of pop melodies and Chicago’s trademark brass arrangements, augmenting co-founders James Pankow and Lee Loughnane with additional players. But more than anything the 14-track set, produced by Joe Thomas (Stevie Nicks, Brian Wilson, Tom Petty), marks the real arrival of singer and guitarist Neil Donell, a Canadian who filled the tenor (aka Peter Cetera) spot back in 2018 but hasn’t made his mark on record until now. Chicago’s remaining founding members – Pankow, Loughnane and Robert Lamm – are certainly present, but with nine lead or co-lead vocals here, Donell becomes more than just part of the group’s touring retinue.
He’s featured right out of the box on Born for This Moment‘s title track, one of three written by Lamm and Ides of March and Survivor veteran Jim Peterik, a love song with a slightly Latin sway and a lush array of brass and swings, with the horns modulating a hot jam toward the end. Donell and Lamm trade vocals on the boy-band-ready single “If This Is Goodbye,” while “Someone Need Me the Most,” with a guest vocal by Toto alumnus Bobby Kimball, could be an outtake from Chicago’s 16/17 era. Donell’s sole writing credit is also Born for This Moment‘s best song: “Safe Harbours,” a rumination on the hopes and dreams parents feel for their children when they send them off to a new world. Its careful arrangement weaves together folky strains, Chicago’s trademark brass attack nicely restrained alongside equally reined-in strings to ornament the track’s rich melody.
Pankow also has fatherhood on his mind in the sweet and, yeah, sappy “Make a Man Out of Me,” while Lamm hews to the romantic and sentimental on his tracks. “Our New York Time,” with its deliberate instrumental references to “Beginnings,” reminisces about falling in love in his hometown, accompanied by a classic horn arrangement and one of the album’s hotter guitar solos (by Tom Bukovac). “The Mermaid (Sereia Do Mar)” mines a lounge-y Latin ambience, and on the album-closing “The House on the Hill,” Lamm ponders mortality, acknowledging the toll of a life spent in transit.
Rest assured that Born for This Moment has its cringe-y moments. The funky numbers feel labored (Lamm’s “She’s Right” is the best of the bunch) and the rhyming reference to the title character of “Firecracker” as a “foxy little heart attacker” is as obsolete as Studio 54. It won’t replace any of those first nine albums – or even 16 and 17 – in your collection, and it’s not as adventurous as 2014’s Chicago XXXVI: Now, but Born for This Moment has enough hallmarks to engage any longtime fan for a moment, if not longer.
Meet the New Boss: Rock’s Replacement Singers
Some bands soar to their greatest heights after an original frontman leaves. Others must deal with the past’s towering expectations.