My general, um, impression of Curtis Mayfield is that his version of soul is just way too slick for me. I’ve felt this about the limited albums of his I’ve heard, be it solo or the Impressions. I don’t feel that way as much about this record and I’m not sure if that’s me getting used to him or that this record is just much funkier than the other stuff I’ve heard by him.
First off, I want to briefly talk about the cover: it is one of the all time great album covers and I’m just amazed that I’ve never seen it before on any lists of those things. It’s a testament to the systemic racism suggests in this very album cover that such a great album cover is routinely ignored by the cultural industry. (Which is, needless to say, dominated by white people.) If only the music fully lived up to the cover.
The songs are pretty catchy. Whatever I might have thought about Mayfield’s other records I’ve heard, I’ve never though the songs weren’t catchy. He has a gift for melody that is fairly unequaled in the soul world. (I guess Smokey Robinson would be way up there, and some of the Motown songwriters -but which ones? – but Mayfield is right up there.)
The lyrics are just not quite as overtly political as I was expecting. Maybe that’s a compliment but I don’t mind explicit politics in music. Who am I to tell him how to express himself but I feel like my biggest criticism of the record is that I expected it to be more scathing lyrically than it is, especially with a cover like this. I can’t decide whether that’s entirely on me – again, who am I to tell him how to express himself – or whether the cover sets us up for something that doesn’t quite follow through.
But I like the sound – it’s extremely slick funk but it feels significantly leaner than the other Mayfield solo stuff I’ve heard. When the orchestra comes in it’s subtle, which is not something I was expecting. It’s still too polished for me – I’ll take Funkadelic or Sly Stone or James Brown over this any day – but it feels restrained and lean and, as a result, funky. Mayfield’s perfectionism is much easier to take in this kind of setting.
And that leanness means it still sounds good today. Sure, it’s unmistakably a ’70s record but it hasn’t aged to the degree that some ’70s soul and funk has. Combine that with the focus of some of the lyrics and it feels as relevant today as ever. (I’d like to say that’s completely a good thing. It’s a good thing musically. Socially it’s a very bad thing, obviously.)