Despite his key role in Chicago’s early success, Robert Lamm was, in some ways, a victim of their ‘faceless’ status and has never received the recognition he deserves as a songwriter and performer in his own right. Indeed, despite his first solo album (Skinny Boy) coming out during Chicago’s mid-70s commercial peak it sank without a trace and he didn’t resume his solo career until the mid-90s. Sadly, a songwriting renaissance coincided with a severe decline in recording activity for the band he helped launch to superstardom with songs such as Beginnings, 25 Or 6 to 4 and Saturday in the Park, hence the marked increase in solo activity in recent decades. This late-career burst of creativity is clearly far from over, judging by this latest effort.
With the exception of 2003’s well-received Subtlety and Passion album, which featured Chicagoesque horn arrangements, and guest spots from most of the then-current line-up of the band, Lamm has generally used his solo work to explore different styles and textures, and on Living Proof, while there are a handful of songs that would fell at home on a classic Chicago album (opener Out of the Blue being the most obvious example) for the most part the territory explored here is closer to the urban sophistication of In My Head – the album that, until now, was my favourite of his solo output.
As Lamm’s liner notes (available to download from www.robertlammsolo.com, along with the song lyrics/credits, etc) make clear the gestation period of some of these songs was decades rather than days, and the fact that he’d previously abandoned some of the ideas that have finally come to fruition on this album is a lesson for all artists to never throw anything away. Several tracks had been submitted for inclusion on various Chicago albums over the years, some in drastically different versions, but at least one (I Confess) was submitted (and rejected) for Chicago XXX which is astonishing, as it is quite possibly the best song any member of Chicago has penned in decades. If Chicago ever return to the studio to record music that isn’t Christmas-themed (chance would be a fine thing) this simply has to be a contender, despite its inclusion here.
While it was once unusual to see a Lamm-penned tune with a co-writer credit, the opposite is now true and on this occasion there are multiple co-writes from long-term collaborator Hank Linderman, as well as more recent acquaintances Trent Gardner and Zosia, all of whom bring different things to the table and help to provide a tremendous diversity to the material. Tantalisingly he also mentions Peter Cetera as one of the writers he sent song ideas to for this album, but doesn’t give any indication of what response, if any, was received.
Zosia actually turns out to be something of a secret weapon on this album, appearing as a vocalist on all three of her contributions and expanding her presence throughout the album from backing vocalist (on Arise) to duet singer (on the tremendously catchy Those Crazy Things) to sole vocalist on first bonus track Liquid Sky. She is very much a worthy successor to Lamm’s previous duet partner, the late Phoebe Snow.
To my mind Lamm was always Chicago’s most consistent – and overlooked – vocalist, and his voice has only changed slightly over the past four decades; the warmth that was always its defining characteristic is present as ever - even the ‘gruff’ voice he employs for much of On the Equinox doesn’t hide this – though it does demonstrate a rarely-seen versatility (though this has been evident on record since at least Chicago III and I Don’t Want Your Money).
While I’ve casually referenced my absolute favourites on the album above, there isn’t a weak moment to be found - without exception all of the songs here will echo in your head for days after listening.
The album ends with a second bonus track - namely a remix of On the Equinox - but this is not a slightly-altered reprise of the ‘official’ version – it really does feel like a completely different song. As a preview of the upcoming ‘Songs of Robert Lamm’ remixes album on which it will be featured alongside other drastically re-worked classics from the Lamm songbook, old and new, it bodes extremely well.
With a total running time of around 40 minutes (including the two ‘bonus’ tracks) this is an album that definitely leaves you wanting more (and as a result I often replay both Those Crazy Things and I Confess once I’ve finished the album as a whole), which is how it should be. Overall this is definitive (one might say living...but one won’t!) proof (if any were needed) that, whatever is happening with his ‘day job’, Lamm’s creativity is undiminished – while the work included here would obviously reach a much wider audience if released under the Chicago banner, I’ll happily take the undiluted approach doing things on his own allows him for as long as he cares to write and record. Fans of early Chicago in particular or (cliché warning) great music in general, need to check this out. (9/10)
PS - I don’t generally bother with samples myself, but if you’re wanting a preview of the album here you go!