Vinyl sales continue to increase year-on-year, with global research company Nielsen reporting that close to 17 million vinyl albums were sold in the US last year. Compare that to a decade ago when the figure was 1.9 million. Of course there are many reasons for this resurgence of vinyl, and none more prominent than the simple fact that music does sound (and always has sounded) better on the format. One of the positives of this ever-increasing popularity is the commissioning of box sets like this one.
The collection features Mayfield’s first four solo albums from 1970 to ‘74 (Super Fly counts as a soundtrack) following a 12- year tenure as leader of The Impressions, and captures the influential soul singer-songwriter’s most creative and fertile period. All are presented in original format on Curtom, the label that Mayfield started in 1968 to give him full creative control of his work.
This is a no-frills set – the four albums are contained in a box with no booklet, but the quality is evident from the reassuring 180g weight vinyl to the inner sleeves. Mayfield’s eponymous debut, Curtis (1970), begins with one of the finest introductions to a solo career in music history, and a potent manifesto. (Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go is a colossal effusion of funk that rips through the speakers. With side two starter Move On Up, in its glorious nine-minute original cut, it’s a sonic first impression that most artists could only dream of. Curtis weaves his trademark political and social commentary seamlessly through the record, which surges with funk and soul.
Roots (1971) is next up, and Mayfield’s growing confidence as a songwriter is obvious. Overall, it’s a more subdued record with diverse song styles, deeper musical complexities, and smooth production. Often underrated and missing the obvious hits of Curtis, Roots is no less a classic album that best displays his versatility.
With the Super Fly (1972) soundtrack under his belt, Mayfield followed up a year later with Back to the World (1973). The title was GI jargon for soldiers returning from Vietnam, and the powerful opening track deals with just that. On Back to the World, hard funk blends with horns and strings, but through the cleverly worded political and social threads there is, like much of Mayfield’s work, a pervading optimism in the compositions. The musicianship here is Tupperware tight.
By modern standards it’s hard to contemplate the musician’s prolific work rate of delivering one album a year, but the inevitable fatigue shows on Sweet Exorcist (1974), which completes the package. That’s not to say it’s a poor album – far from it – but there are fewer highlights. With less funk than Mayfield’s previous solo work, the title track and the big single off the album, Kung Fu, are nonetheless irrefutable classics.
Curtis Mayfield would remain active – despite becoming a paraplegic when a stage scaffold struck him in 1990 – until 1997, when he released his last studio album. He died from diabetes two years later.
This is an essential collection of four albums for any record collection, capturing Mayfield during the most prodigious five years of his long career.
Keep On Keeping On: Curtis Mayfield’s Studio Albums 1970-1974 is out now via Warner.
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