On March 22, 1994 Chicago's twenty-second album, Stone of Sisyphus was scheduled for release. The band was forgoing their usual numerical titles. This album was to be a reinvention of sorts.
March 22nd became April 12th. April 12th turned into April 26th. And then April 26th became "September." At some point in this chronology, a decision was made to shelve this album. It was never "officially" to see the light of day.
To this day, while bits and pieces, the occassional song here and there have been released as bonus tracks on various greatest hits compilations. Alternate "solo" versions of certain songs were released by various band members on outside projects. But, truth be told, this album in its original format, has it was originally intended to be released has never "officially" seen the light of day.
But fans remained undeterred. Throughout the mid and late nineties the album did find its way into the hands of the loyal fans who had not forgotten of this band. The more generous of fans rated this the best album Chicago had recorded since the untimely death of guitarist, Terry Kath, in 1978. But even those who were less complimentary went so far as to say it was the best album since the 1985 departure of bassist/vocalist Peter Cetera.
Indeed. If this album had been released on that original Tuesday in late March 1994, the album would have been incredibly well received by the legions of fans who remained disappointed after the overly saccharine Chicago 19 and the rather pedestrian Twenty-1. It had punch, it had balls, and it had that wall of brass that had been so conspicuously absent on the band's eighties albums.
The album opens with All the Years, a Robert Lamm penned tune hearkening back to the political sensibilities he'd injected into Chicago's material of the late sixties and early seventies. A horn-less version had already appeared on Lamm's 1993 solo album, Life Is Good In My Neighbourhood.
The title track is possibly one of the best surprises the band has offered in years. Written by then-guitarist, Dawayne Bailey. Stone of Sisyphus features Lamm and Bailey trading off on the lead vocals with Lamm handling the verses and Bailey handling the choruses and bridge. Bailey's unique sense of humor is present in the lyrics:
Blood sweat and tears turn faith into will
A subtle nod to Chicago's sixties horn-rock contemporaries of years past.
One of the few ballads on the album, Bigger Than Elvis, is bass player Jason Scheff's tribute to his father, Jerry, who once upon a time played bass for Elvis. It's a stirring and shining example of a son's paternal love.
Sleeping In the Middle of the Bed Again, another Lamm penned tune even, at one point, features an attempt at rap. Lamm would later include an alternate and much different arrangement of this song on his 1997 solo release, In My Head. The newer version would lack the infectious groove and the brass punch of the Chicago song.
Mah Jongg, is catchy and laidback with a gentle groove. After being conspicuously absent on the first four tracks, we finally hear Bill Champlin's gritty and soulful vocals. An alternate version of this with Brandon Fields on sax and vocalist Jason Scheff handling vocals ended up on Scheff's obscure solo album, Chauncy a few years later.
Unfortunately, try as they may, Chicago could not completely abandon the insipid or saccharine ballads that had turned their music into prom fodder just ten years earlier. Let's Take a Lifetime is everything long-time fans of this band love to hate about the worst this band has given them over their long tenure.
During the 1993 summer tour, in anticipation of this album's impending release, Chicago performed The Pull. This song has one of the better horn charts I've heard on any of their material in awhile. No longer relegated to the background with the intermittent blats to remind the fans that horns were still part of the band-- as they'd had to resort to in the eighties, the horns remain an integral part of the song from start to finish... Acting almost as another "vocalist" as they had in the band's heyday in the seventies.
While Chicago was not done giving their fans ballads, Candle For the Dark (Here With Me) is much less offensive and considerably less saccharine than Let's Take a Lifetime. It features Robert Lamm, Jason Scheff, and Bill Champlin all taking turns on lead vocals and rather than a synthesized sax solo like in Let's Take a Lifetime the horns actually play throughout the entire song-- if Chicago truly must play the occassional ballad it's nice to see that they remembered to give their horn section something to do, other than just reading the newspaper or "playing" a redundant third or fourth keyboard.
With Twenty-1 Chicago had given the executives at Warner Brothers/Reprise just what they wanted. A rather pedestrian album with a few catchy ballads to be released as singles. That album tanked so bad that only one song from it has ever been performed live. Plaid was Chicago's giant middle fingers to the executives for inflicting the damage of Twenty-1 on the masses. Incidentally, the song probably didn't help convince those same executives to release Stone of Sisyphus.
Proving that Robert Lamm isn't the only one in the band who knows how to write songs with a message, Bill Champlin contributed Cry For the Lost. In 1995 Champlin would release a considerably different version with alternate lyrics titled Proud of Our Blindness on his Through It All solo album. Both versions are interesting, but given Champlin's distinguished grammy-winning songwriting career they are, by comparison, rather forgettable.
In what is probably the most lyrically unusual song in Chicago's canon, Get On This, features hard driving guitars, soaring vocals and lyrics that detail a strange dream. One could almost say that while Robert Lamm stays up until "25 or 6 to 4" trying to write songs, Dawayne Bailey instead waits till morning and tells of the dreams had the night before. Bailey has indicated that many of the lyrics were inspired by the poetry of his then girlfriend, Felicia Parazaider. Trombonist, James Pankow added an assist and the end result is the type of song Chicago had never done before and will, more than likely, never do again.
The album closes with The Show Must Go On an autobiographical song co-penned by Bill Champlin. A very different version of this song with a completely different set of lyrics had appeared on the Fixx album, Ink, a few years before. The Fixx version was titled Falling In Love. Musically, however, it's obvious the two songs were cut from the same cloth.
This is one of the best "could've been" albums to ever sit gathering dust in the vaults. It was certainly better than Chicago's worst material and it was even better than much of the more mediocre half-assed efforts they'd spoonfed fans over the years. If in your Internet travels you stumble across a torrent of this, add it to your download queue. If you miss the Chicago of old, this album will not disappoint. While it has not aged well, it's still aged better than their ill-fated attempts at disco on Chicago XIII and has that brass punch that Chicago SHOULD have had in the eighties when they seemingly forgot they had a horn section.