The revelation of Sire Records’ recent anthology, The Impressions: The Vintage Years, is the artistic dominance of Curtis Mayfield beginning in the late Fifties. Whether shaping the persona of early Jerry Butler or using the Impressions to extend his own, Mayfield has been a man of sweeping, uniquely personal vision. And while he’s never had a moment with the impact of Elvis Presley’s Sun sessions or Ray Charles live at Atlanta, his deft juggling of pop and the music and message of gospel has brought him decades of success.
But the religiously secular morality central to Mayfield’s music (listen to “People Get Ready” and “Amen”) finally broke down when he tried emulating the thematic shift Marvin Gaye had made from What’s Going On to Let’s Get It On—a transition to social consciousness that dramatically symbolized soul music’s progress in the Seventies. Mayfield’s songs about women have always been poetic and idealistic, but the invocation to partying central to his last LP, Give, Get, Take and Have, like that on Gaye’s Let’s Get It On, was for Curtis embarrassingly contrived.
Never Say You Can’t Survive shows that since Give, Get, Take and Have, the nadir of his career, Mayfield has redirected his energies appropriately but ineffectually. The music is streamlined and romantic, produced securely in the lush, neo-Fifties style Mayfield so successfully employed last year with Aretha Franklin. But Mayfield can’t sing like Aretha. His voice, which grows thinner and more strained with each album, fails to command the focus of the big, multisectioned arrangements. Mayfield has never allowed his voice to betray him as he does here. The Impressions were as much an extension of his voice as his vision: even his successful solo songs have depended less on singing ability than on narrative backdrops. Today, though, Mayfield falls short, hampered as much by his aversion to the most effective production devices for his voice as by the voice itself. On slow, romantic songs, the vocal demands far exceed his capacity to deliver. On the catchy “When You Used to Be Mine,” a plea for the return of a lost lover, it’s hard to tell whether the ache in his voice comes from the content of the song or from the simple strain of singing it.
It’s a shame because some of the ballads are beautiful. And with tunes such as the title song, Mayfield shows that he can weather any change in pop taste with his ability to craft a simple song of faith, To expect his unadorned voice to deliver it, however, is to ask that the limits of that faith extend to include the miraculous.