The thing about the age of recorded music is, there is so much out there which was important to different times, different people, different groups. There are artists who made huge impact across the majority, and others who were far more influential despite being far less known. There are entire genres and subgenres that all have their own seminal works, their own can’t miss listens, and their own forgotten gems. Sitting in the midst of all this are albums like Curtis Mayfield’s Curtis. It’s an album that would never have crossed my radar (maybe, maaaaybe Superfly would have blipped across it), but it’s also an important one, and not just because it was recommended to me by a man who has been known to hang out at the bar until “Move On Up” blasts through the speakers and the lights come up to send the masses home again.
I’m sure I’m not the only one to make this comparison, to the point where it almost seems dirty to mention it at all, but in a lot of ways Curtis feels like the darker side of What’s Going On. Gaye and Mayfield both made names for themselves with their lovely voices and Motown sounds, but both are equally well known for their treatment of race. “We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue” is a rallying cry while also being a lament over the way hatred can make enemies of those who should be banding together, and it mixes some uptempo funkiness in with that heartfelt blues. Outside of commentary on society, Mayfield touches on his personal darkness in “The Other Side of Town,” singing about his depression. In these moments, Mayfield seems unsure that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. By contrast, when Marvin sings about the craziness of what is, well, going on, he starts with the laughter and greetings of friends and acquaintances, and about finding a way to bring love here today. In the first half of Curtis, there seems less certainty that love is a thing which can be brought so easily. If Gaye’s seminal album is about “when,” Mayfield seems to pre-emptively answer “maybe never.” It’s not incorrect: these albums are still relevant in part because we’re still experiencing the sorts of conditions which spawned them in the first place.
From the start, indeed, we are made aware that this will not be an easy, soulful Motown group album. How does one react to a song like “(Don’t Worry) If There Is a Hell Below, We’re All Gonna Go”? It begins as though trying to rankle as many folks as possible, not only utilizing a preacher voice to address any number of groups by less than flattering terms, but legitimately beginning with a voice insisting that if we only would listen to the Bible and specifically Revelation, we’d all be better off. Did the religious of the time realize the deep cynicism of that clip, especially against the hopeless backdrop of a song insisting that we’re all going to hell, and it’s OK? Did Mayfield himself intend the track to be so seemingly anti-religion, or just to reflect on the weight of the situation he saw America finding itself in? It sets a certain tone that surely turned off a lot of listeners, and I wish I could experience it with the impact it must have had all those years ago, especially as it’s still jarring today.
Curtis does also have its lighter moments, though. The first platter holds the sweet falsetto of “The Makings of You” in the midst of the doom and gloom, as if to say sure, it’s bleak out there, but I’m gonna still romance the hell out of you right about now. ”Miss Black America” is perhaps an odd curio, with its father-daughter conversation at the beginning and all the natural charm of, well, a pageant theme, but it’s also a celebration of black beauty. The final strains of “Wild and Free” and “Give It Up” end the album on an upbeat note in contrast to the start. This album is still a primer in 70s soul and funk, and for as much as that means embracing the political, it also means getting the fuck down. Which brings us to the inevitable: “Move On Up.”
“Move On Up” is 9 minutes of party, and those horns make it 9 minutes of joy (as does the percussion, for that matter). Well, OK, so the song itself doesn’t continue in its own form the whole time, but that drum break though… it makes me wish I had the ability to dance, and as the basic guitar line comes in, then the soloing sax, then strings and horns, the layers coming back bit by bit, showing layer by layer just how well constructed the song is… it’s like a behind the music episode without words, an understanding of what it takes to construct music, and how many sounds it takes to create a feeling. As the upper registers fade out again, the bass becomes more obvious, and a secondary guitar line wanders around. When the horns come back, it is the lower range first. It’s such a compelling few measures to start with, with all that percussive wizardry and exultant brass, but the way those layers come in and out makes the