Old/New Albums: Curtis Mayfield’s “There’s No Place Like America Today”

Welcome to 2015 and the continuation of my blog series from last year, Old/New Albums. Every two weeks, I listen to the same album every day and write about it. The album can be from any genre, any decade; the only caveat is that I’ve never heard it before. It might be an old album, but it’s new to me (hence, Old/New).

curtismayfieldI’m kicking off this run of the series with Curtis Mayfield’s 1975 album, There’s No Place Like America Today. I’ve listened to a fair amount of Mayfield’s music since 2006, when I heard him sampled by Kanye West in “Touch The Sky” and essentially ripped-off by John Mayer in “Waiting On The World To Change” (to his credit, Mayer referenced Mayfield explicitly for the song’s inspiration). Take a listen to “Move On Up” and “We’re A Winner” to hear the genesis of those songs, respectively.

There are a few Mayfield albums I could’ve chosen, but this album cover really caught my eye. In the wake of the palpable racial tension of the last few months, it’s sad that an album cover from 40 years ago can resonate so strongly today.

It is based on a photograph published in 1937 by Margaret Bourke-White. The photo showed a billboard labeled “World’s Highest Standard of Living” (here replaced by Mayfield’s name) and the message “There’s no way like the American way” (here replaced by the album’s title) on top of a picture of a happy white family riding in their fancy car. In front of the billboard is a line of black folks, displaced by the Ohio River Flood of 1937, waiting for food and clothing from a relief station. The disparity couldn’t be more clearly communicated. The American Dream is a myth, a utopian ideal; real life seems constantly stacked against real people.

The lyrical content of this album reflects that theme again and again. “Billy Jack” tells the story of an acquaintance of the singer who was killed in the middle of the day by a stray bullet. “When Seasons Change” is heartbreaking poetry about how the hardships of time can bear down on a soul. “Hard Times” is probably the most straightforward telling of the hardships of the black American experience. Even “Jesus” reads like a prayer for salvation from the social ills that surround the singer.

One thing that I loved was how perfectly Mayfield’s music set the tone of the album. This is not a fast album; most of the tempos are relatively slow and plodding, matching the feeling of the line of people on the cover. But the speed of the music suits it very well, as it creates this tension of unmet aspiration. Life in that line seems like an unending slow march and that’s the atmosphere created by Mayfield’s music.

All of the songs on this record are great examples, but “Billy Jack” and “Hard Times” are especially well-paced. “Hard Times” is a cover of the Baby Huey & The Babysitters tune, but Mayfield has dialed the speed back a great deal, creating this feel of gritty restraint. It’s got a funkier edge, with some real stank in the guitar work, that emotes a different point of view than the original. This is a fantastic cover of an already great song.

Finally, I have to some love to the one non-social-issue song on the album. “So In Love” was my favorite song, even if it didn’t totally fit into the rest of the album’s theme. It such a gorgeously relaxed song with a fantastic horn arrangement. There’s nothing hurried or frantic about the love Mayfield sings about; it feels lived in and comfortable. The music effortlessly reflects that mood so well.

I read a number of reviews on this album that spoke negatively towards the pacing, saying they were looking for more of an in-your-face feeling given the social activist nature of the music. After spending a couple weeks in this record, I firmly disagree. Sure, this is a slow album with no songs that will get people out of their seats to dance. But that slowness lends an air of reality to the record and helps communicate so much better the difficult truths contained within. Mayfield points his unique lens at the disparity between the varying degrees of quality of life in America. This album helped me understand that disparity a little better.

If you’ve got no experience with Curtis Mayfield’s body of work, I actually would steer you away from this album and towards something like Superfly or his self-titled Curtis, due mainly to the accessibility and popularity of those records. This might not be the best starting point for Mayfield’s work, but There’s No Place Like America Today is a really high quality album. You’ll learn a lot from listening.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. So In Love
  2. Billy Jack
  3. Love To The People
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