Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Curtis Mayfield

  • Curtis [Curtom, 1970] B+
  • Roots [Curtom, 1971] B-
  • Super Fly [Curtom, 1972] A-
  • Back to the World [Curtom, 1973] C
  • Sweet Exorcist [Curtom, 1974] C
  • America Today [Curtom, 1975] D+
  • Give, Get, Take and Have [Curtom, 1976] B
  • Love Is the Place [Boardwalk, 1982] B
  • New World Order [Warner Bros., 1996] *
  • People Get Ready: The Curtis Mayfield Story [Rhino, 1996]

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Curtis [Curtom, 1970]
Initially I distrusted these putatively middlebrow guides to black pride--"Miss Black America" indeed. But a lot of black people found them estimable, so I listened some more, and I'm glad. Since Mayfield is a more trustworthy talent than Isaac Hayes, I wasn't too surprised at the durability of the two long cuts--the percussion jam is as natural an extension of soul music (those Sunday handclaps) as the jazzish solo. What did surprise me was that the whole project seemed less and less middlebrow as I got to know it. Forget the harps--"Move On Up" is Mayfield's most explicit political song, "If There's a Hell Below We're All Gonna Go" revises the usual gospel pieties, and "Miss Black America" has its charms, too. B+

Roots [Curtom, 1971]
Last time he announced his lack of "concern or interest in astrology," so when the zodiac showed up as a packaging motif I began to get nostalgic for the Impressions. But though the vagueness that was Curtis's chief flaw runs rampant musically ("Love to Keep You in My Mind" goes nowhere slowly) and lyrically ("Underground" is one long mixed metaphor), it's not all that bad--the relaxed, natural groove of Mayfield's falsetto and his rhythm section are both seductive. Only on the lead cuts, however--especially the heavy-breathing sex opus "Get Down"--does he sweep you off your feet. B-

Super Fly [Curtom, 1972]
I'm no respecter of soundtracks, but I can count--this offers seven new songs (as many as his previous LP) plus two self-sustaining instrumentals. It's not epochal, but it comes close--maybe Mayfield writes tougher when the subject is imposed from outside than when he's free to work out of his own spacious head. Like the standard-setting "Freddie's Dead," these songs speak for (and to) the ghetto's victims rather than its achievers (cf. "The Other Side of Town," on Curtis), transmitting bleak lyrics through uncompromisingly vivacious music. Message: both candor and rhythm are essential to our survival. A-

Back to the World [Curtom, 1973]
It grieves me to report that I've listened to this ten times and can't remember a riff--except for the one that goes soo-perfly, I mean few-churshock. C

Sweet Exorcist [Curtom, 1974]
No, Curtis has not latched onto another lucrative soundtrack. In fact, he claims to have written his exorcist song (about a female sexorcist) before there was an exorcist movie. He could have avoided this confusion by calling the album "To Be Invisible" after its only interesting song, from the less lucrative Claudine soundtrack, where Gladys Knight sings it better than him. Mayfield's next lp: The Great Ratsby. C

America Today [Curtom, 1975]
I had hoped the featureless doodling of his post-Super Fly albums just meant he was treading water while transferring from Viewlex to Warner Comm. Instead it appears that he was seeking new standards of incoherence. D+

Give, Get, Take and Have [Curtom, 1976]
This meanders more than is conscionable, though Curtis has been drifting through the ozone for so long that you don't notice at first. (For orientation purposes, compare Gladys Knight's "Mr. Welfare Man.") But I am most pleased to report that the opener, "In My Arms Again," is the first top-notch song he's written for himself since "Super Fly," (somebody bad riffing on guitar--sounds like . . . Curtis Mayfield), and that the three that follow rock and roll. B

Love Is the Place [Boardwalk, 1982]
With help from Dino Fekaris, Mayfield's best album in years includes his first hit in years, but neither has created much stir, which is fair enough--the single is catchy and nothing more, the album honest and nothing more. Except, except. "Just Ease My Mind," a Mayfield-composed ballad, is a gentle plea for succor so purely country I think I've happened upon some disciple of Stoney Edwards or Jesse Winchester every time it catches me unawares. It shouldn't be lost. B

New World Order [Warner Bros., 1996]
floating free of the merely corporeal, just like always ("Here But I'm Gone," "The Got Dang Song") *

People Get Ready: The Curtis Mayfield Story [Rhino, 1996]
Curtis Mayfield wasn't just a genius, he was a hero. He even managed to record 1996's creditable New World Order as a quadriplegic. But as geniuses go he was pretty spacy, his solo work radically inconsistent, and accessing his higher-than-gospel croon, stealth guitar riffs, utopian-millenarian political vision, and erotic-domestic romanticism is can be pretty messy. This box set is the only effective way to find out how good Mayfield could be beyond his acknowledged canon. The final disc of the three consists entirely of post-'76 dribs and drabs. Some are merely obscure. But others--"Homeless," "She Don't Let Nobody (But Me)"--are vintage. [Rolling Stone: 4]

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