Picture yourself in Chicago's shoes in 1980: Your last two albums haven't been up your usual standard of quality, and also did not meet sales expectations. You just fired Donnie Dacus, the man who was brought in to replace your bands soul/guitar player Terry Kath, after two albums. Disco, and Punk and New Wave are the dominant musical styles of the time, styles far from the brand of jazz rock you made popular in the 70's. Your lead singer is prepared to leave the group, and drug and alcohol addictions abound. Most groups would pack it in at this point, but not Chicago. However, after listening to Chicago XIV, sometimes I wish they had.
The problems with XIV are many, and couldn't be avoided. Chicago as a group was exhausted mentally and physically, and in no condition to record a new album. This is evident in the complete lack of energy in the performance, and the tired feel of the material.
In the 70's, Chicago's trademark was their horn section, which was thought of by the band as another lead vocalist. Jimmy Pankow, Lee Loughnane, and Walt Parazaider were the punch in Chicago's attack. These three did indeed perform on Chicago XIV, but you couldn't tell me it was them. The horns are tacked onto the songs, for the sole reason this is a Chicago album. There are no amazing performances along the lines of "Now That You've Gone," or "25 Or 6 To 4" The horns come off as stiff, and don't add anything to the material. The lone exception is a decent trombone solo on "Thunder And Lightning," but it's over before you know it.
At this point, Chicago had two feasible lead vocalists, Peter Cetera and Robert Lamm. Cetera by now was the voice of the band to many, and as a result has a lion's share of the vocals. Most of his performances are average, but he ruins the album for me with his performances "Song For You" and "Birthday Boy." Cetera goes falsetto on the former, and comes off as wimpy. "Birthday Boy" has the dubious distinction of being my least favorite Chicago song ever. It's disgustingly saccharine and sappy, to the point where I can feel my teeth begin to melt while listening to it. Lyrically, it is an abomination to man, filled with trite lines such as, "Birthday boy, blow out the candles; Good friends around you, you should feel O.K." It's not often I have a visceral reaction to a song, this is one of those instances.
Lamm's material is the "best" on the album; the opener "Manipulation" is actually a decent song, featuring some nice guitar work from session man Chris Pinnick, along with the most lively performance from the horn section on the album. "I'd Rather Be Rich," an outtake from the Chicago X album, is a funky offering, with the usual cynical lyrical edge of a Robert Lamm song. Jimmy Pankow wrote the closing number, "The American Dream", an anti-establishment protest song, but it doesn't even come close to earlier anti-government songs Chicago recorded, such as "It Better End Soon," or "Dialogue Parts I and II."
Does anything go right for Chicago on Chicago XIV? You wouldn't think so, however due to the incredibly poor performance of the album, (Jimmy Pankow once said the album probably went "aluminum, maybe plywood), Chicago's focus completely changed. They brought in a new producer named David Foster, a new vocalist and guitarist named Bill Champlin, and as a result their next studio effort Chicago 16 would bring them back into the spotlight. Just for that, Chicago XIV holds an important position in Chicago history.