That's the Way of the World
2015 marked the fortieth 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 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 human beings are flawed, 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 one and elevate to mood of the listener. They instill a sense of confidence in the listener to achieve their best rather than excessively dwell on their faults. 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.
“That’s the Way of the World” is the song which provides some context for the inclusion of these other seemingly superficial songs. 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 all people started out as fundamentally good. To hearken back to that positive, innocent state of youth allows man to cast aside the negative effects society may have on the soul. This is not blindly saying man is perfect, but that the way a child is raised can change they way they live their lives. 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 one reflect on their self in way 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 they want the listener to understand this and not allow material goods and professions to take away from humanity. One of the ways people judge other 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 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. It acknowledges humanity as a whole comprised of virtue and vice, but says humans can choose the former and turn away from the latter--although it may be difficult to do. 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, although it acknowledges the problems that permeate it. There is a reason there are the upbeat songs interspersed between the more serious songs. They combine to inspire the listener, but to also make the listener evaluate his own character. Human nature as described in this album is one that is imperfect, but capable of good. The same person who has the desire to learn and has the ability to love also has the capability to be negatively affected by the society in which he lives, and his vices can cloud his reason--but reason can allow the good to overcome vice.