Wealthy and cool enough to maintain a reputation on the sweet fragrance of thirty years’ worth of fumes, Nile Rodgers nevertheless wanted a new Chic album. Maybe fans clamored for one. Chic albums haven’t sold since 1979’s Risqué, though. Few listeners clamored for Chic albums even during their Carter-era heyday; for the general public that made “Le Freak” the largest selling single in Atlantic Records’ history to date, a Chic album would’ve been expected hits-plus-filler anyway.
But I’m not the general public. I’m a member of the coterie that embraces 1980’s Real People and especially 1981’s Take It Off as forgotten classics of knotted post-disco funk: spare when required, piano lines complementing the pinched insistence of Rodgers’s rhythm guitar, vocals sliding into the pocket opened by Bernard Edwards’s bass. Like Miles Davis inserting terse reminders of his bebop years into his ’70s rock experiments, these late period tracks evoke a just-elapsed era of dance while remaining austere, their lines of beauty Hogarthian in their elegant curves and swerves. It’s About Time works the other way: It draws from a present infused with Rodgers’s conception of dance music as sturdy but soufflé-light.
The problem bedeviling the first new Chic album since 1992’s Chic-ism is one of definition: What does Chic mean in 2018? To Rodgers and his collaborators, it means a Daft Punk album whose processed vocals and acoustic elements collide to abrasive effect; it means a tighter Maroon 5 album. Yet Adam & the Levines are nowhere in sight, nor indeed any major star with the exception of Craig David, Elton John, and Lady Gaga, the latter intoning the lyrics of an unwise remake of 1979’s “I Want Your Love” as if she were Minnie Mouse imitating Grace Jones. This makes sense. The star is Rodgers, or, rather, those clipped strummed notes—why should Mura Masa or Vic Mensa interfere, as they don’t on opener “Till the World Falls Down”?
But return to the contemporaneity dilemma. Listening to London singer Nao squeak through “Boogie All Night,” it feels like no stretch to imagine Rodgers relocating to Seoul. Accelerate the tempos, hire a couple more producers specializing in hairpin genre turns, and voilà—Nile Rodgers as K-pop master. Better that than Pilates class soundtracks like “Dance With Me,” or, ye gods, the ballad “Queen,” in which Emeli Sandé bellows once-upon-a-time lyrics while Elton struggles for air. Better that than LunchMoney Lewis’s vocodered dumb questions on “Do You Wanna Party,” a Walgreens cut-out bin version of the cracker-thin funk of “Get Lucky,” the Daft Punk-Pharrell collaboration that re-introduced Nile to the Bruno Mars generation.
What Chic means in 2018 is a promise, with Rodgers’s guitar as the promissory note, to evoke the good times without commitment. It’s About Time resonates most powerfully when he isn’t peeping at the Billboard Hot 100 on his iPhone. When Philippe Saisse’s terse, often jagged piano parts get a showcase in “State of Mine (It’s About Time),” it’s a masterclass in chemistry: two musicians throwing hot licks at each other, knowing the other will return the favor. The best rhythm guitarist of the last 40 years still wants a challenge. Recording new pop music worthy of his talents remains one.