Roots, Curtis Mayfield’s third solo album, is a confused and confusing record. It’s undoubtedly been influenced, both conceptually and technically, by Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? Gaye’s record surprised a lot of people by its strong religious content, coming from someone who had previously recorded only love songs. Curtis, on the other hand, wrote and sang, with the Impressions, many religious and quasi-religious songs like “People Get Ready” and “Keep On Pushing.” Roots is meant to be, among other things, an announcement of his secularization.
Curtis is quite explicit. The first song, “Get Down”, says: “After life and desire there is nothing left/We’re all children of the world/A hungry man in search of a hungry girl.” After a series of love, peace and come-together songs (during which he never once mentions God), he ends with a song dedicated to his woman: “For I need you constantly/Spirit and holy ghost in me.”
One of the main problems with this album is that you can feel a lack of conviction. There’s a marked difference between what the lyrics say and what Curtis expresses musically. Nor is it a matter of mere commercialism.
Curtis has a uniquely beautiful voice. He often sounds like he’s crying — or at least pleading. His best songs with the Impressions were the inspirational ones like “Keep on Pushing” and “We’re A Winner,” or his truly heartbreaking ones like “Seven Years.” There was pain and shared suffering in all his songs, the love songs as well as the uplift songs — pain in his singing, in the melodies, in the elegant harmonies. He won me over years ago with the lyrics to one of his earliest hits, “It’s All Right”: “When you wake up early in the morning/Feeling sad like so many of us do/Have a little soul and make life your goal.” The beauty of the first two lines and stiltedness of the end of the third line is typical of Mayfield lyrics.
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On the new record he pours all this passion into a line about people in the neighborhood getting together, and I can’t believe him. His earthy, lusty song, “Get Down,” despite all the panting girls in the background, and all the attempts at funkiness, comes out singularly un-erotic. His concluding song of devotion to his woman, “Love To Keep You On My Mind,” is so oversimplified that, despite some fine moments, it is unconvincing and a bit silly.
The past few years have been rather painful transitional years for soul music, and this is only one of many sort of schizoid attempts. Mayfield still has a lot going for him. Some of the harmonies on this record are astounding, and his rhythm section is fine. Roots is a strangely peaceful album, and when Curtis occasionally gets his thing together, really beautiful. But in the end he winds up leaving you frustrated and hungry.