This album was significantly different from Chicago's early albums. Gone was the progressive flavored rock and jazz fusion. Gone are the longer, highly experimental tracks. In its place is tautly written and performed music indicative of the skill of a group into their eleventh album, a group that would soon be losing one of its most creative members, Terry Kath.
The CD kicks off with "Mississippi Delta City Blues," a mixture of Terry Kath's bluesy voice style with Chicago's strong horns and a rock beat to create a powerful song. The funky flavor of this song is indicative of the mid-70s era in which it was written and performed, and yet the jazz and blues provide this song with a timeless quality that make it as enjoyable to listen to today as 1977. This song is so fast-paced and instrument-laden that it flirts with the hard rock category.
The transition from the powerful "Mississippi Delta City Blues" to "Baby, What a Big Surprise" is very dramatic. The former is instrument and beat powered. This song is a love ballad focused on Peter Cetera's vocals and harmonies. This beautiful pop song hit #4 and was a hint of Chicago's transition to a pop band in the 80s.
The transition from "Baby, What a Big Surprise" to "Till the End of Time" is less dramatic than the transition into the previous song as this song is also relatively slow and mellow, but Chicago's signature horns and blues flavor make this song a ballad in Chicago's style of that time rather than the much mellower Peter Cetera pop song. The thick vocal style and layered sound are but some of the characteristics of the unique Chicago sound of this era.
"Policeman" is lyrically significantly different from the two previous love songs. The song is jazz and blues influenced, with a touch of keyboard, typical for the 70s. The song is poignant in that it combines the worst scenarios in life for policemen in general. Seeing the worst in life, hoping to make a difference, and the stress being a policeman causes in your personal life. With so many songs that are down on the police, this blues song looks at their life from their side, a look that puts in perspective that police are people with a tough job.
The next song, "Take Me Back to Chicago," is a funky jazz celebration of Chicago, the city. The singer is apparently in Los Angeles, longing for Lake Michigan and Tastee Freeze and probably Lakeshore Drive. This song offers a mellow start with little keyboard flavors. The song breaks into stronger jazz sections that proclaim how enthusiastic the band is about Chicago. This song was released as a single with "Policeman," though it charted poorly. Unfortunate because it is a better song than many released in the late 70s.
The bouncy little ditty that follows, "Vote for Me," is pure fun. The song offers a rock style that has some similarity to Elton John's mid-70s music, and the lyrics are a parody of political promises made in every election year.
"Takin' It on Uptown" offers a Jimi Hendrix-style guitar driven rock song that bears little resemblance to any of the previous six songs. This powerful song is the fourth style offered in the first seven songs, and shows the breadth of ability of this phenomenal group. In spite of the heavy beat and the power instruments this song is enjoyable. While the next song, "This Time," offers horns, it too has a powerful guitar track that retains some of the flavor of the previous song. The latter song is a fun love song with all the hallmarks of classic Chicago music.
"The Inner Struggles of a Man" is a short instrumental that is somewhat reminiscent of the instrumentals on the first three Chicago albums. This track is shorter than most of those instrumentals, but the style is similar. The change in pace from the previous tracks is dramatic, with an orchestral sound including strings rather than jazz or rock instruments. This instrumental smoothly transitions to "Prelude (Little One)," a short (52 seconds) blues introduction to "Little One," which was the final track on the original release. The transition between "Prelude (Little One)" and "Little One" is not discernable. "Little One" features lead vocals by Terry Kath and his emotional vocals become in effect a poignant end to his recording career. Knowing that Terry Kath would soon be gone when this was recorded sends chills down my spine. "Little One" was released as a single with "Till the End of Time," achieving only modest success, rising to #44 on the hot 100 and #40 on the easy listening chart.
This version of "Chicago XI" features two bonus tracks, "Wish I Could Fly" and "Paris." "Wish I could Fly" is a rock instrumental that is a worthy addition to this CD. "Paris" is a bouncy rock tune with strong percussion. Both tracks are listed as being rehearsals. I think "Wish I Could Fly" is the better of the two bonus tracks. "Paris" is nice having and pushes the time for this CD to over 52 minutes, but is the weakest track on the entire CD.
Chicago started as a unique group. While this CD is less experimental than their earliest albums, the experimentation has given way to refinement. The result is a quality album that compares well to their most ambitious albums. Fans of Chicago's early, more progressive tracks will find this album lacks that type of music. This album stands as a testament to a group that marks the end of its first era with its release. This CD is a must have for fans of early Chicago music and for those who enjoy jazz-rock.