Sunday, December 26, 2010

December 26: Curtis Mayfield, "Future Shock"

Artist: Curtis Mayfield
Song: "Future Shock"
Album: Back To The World
Year: 1973

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For certain artists, their impact was so wide-reaching and extended across the generations that there is simply no way to do them justice in any sort of tribute.  These performers were not just musicians, but writers, producers, and social figures that stretched well beyond the musical realm, making them truly worthy of the title of "icon."  Even within the elite group of musicians who are worth of this title, a few stand out about the others, and it is this small pack that represent the most important performers in all of music history.  Though many do not realize the impact he had before he became a solo artist, there is not another musician in history that can compare to the influence or recorded history of the one and only Curtis Mayfield.  From his work at Motown Records and his time in The Impressions, to his truly revolutionary work as a solo artist, Mayfield re-wrote the books on what could be accomplished musically, as well as being one of the earliest and most outspoken advocates for the struggle of African-Americans in the late 1960's and 1970's.  Due to this fearless musical approach in every sense of the word, many of his songs have become true classics, and most of them remain just as fresh and powerful today as they did when they were first released.  Though there are many great songs to choose from, few bring a similar impact and representation of his cautionary forecast of events than one finds in Curtis Mayfield's classic 1973 single, "Future Shock."

Arriving on the heals of his chart-topping Superfly album, this record, and the single specifically, return Curtis Mayfield to a more direct, often more potent musical presentation, and though it did not reach the same commercial success as its predecessor, the songs on this album are just as, if not more powerful.  As is the case with a majority of his solo work, "Future Shock" revolves around an extraordinary, winding bassline, and the groove is established immediately.  The way in which the drums work around this feeling is absolutely perfect, and there is often a two-step, strangely danceable sound that comes from the combination found within the rhythm section.  Over this fantastic groove, Mayfield drops even more funky onto the track with a twisting guitar progression, highlighted by his perfect use of a "wah" pedal.  Though it is almost overused throughout music history, it is on songs such as "Future Shock" that one can experience the ideal balance and implementation of the sound.  The final element that sets "Future Shock" apart from the pack is the way in which Mayfield incorporates the horn section into the song.  The way in which it fits perfectly into the rest of the sound is no doubt due to his work at Motown Records, and the strangely bright accentuation that the horns provide is the final element that makes "Future Shock" a song that knows no musical equal.

While "Future Shock" stands as one of his finals musical creations, as is almost always the case, the song is pushed to the status of "musical perfection" due to the brilliant vocal and lyrical work that Curtis Mayfield brings to the track.  His often high-pitched voice is unquestionably one of the most instantly recognizable in all of music history, and the emotion he conveys on this song highlights the power he was able to bring without needing to be loud or aggressive.  The vocals on "Future Shock" perfectly match the music in terms of the sway and groove found within, and there is a great amount of soulful frustration that can also be heard in his singing.  Furthermore, there is a strong sense of warning that comes across in the song, and "Future Shock" stands today as one of the most gritty and unapologetic glimpses into the urban life of big cities in the early 1970's.  Mayfield pulls no punches, as he leaves nothing to subtlety when he rips into deep, yet powerful lines such as, "...god bless the father, ain't got the strength to be bothered..."  The overall feeling of helplessness that he brings to the lyrics makes "Future Shock" dark in a manner that was unprecedented, and countless artists would attempt to convey this mood in the years that followed.  On a larger scale, Mayfield's warning still echoes true today, especially when he sings, "...we got to stop all men, from messing up the land, when won't we understand, this is our last and only chance..."

It is songs such as "Future Shock" that proved that while Curtis Mayfield presented a rather quiet, refined demeanor, there was a bite and aggression in his songs that remains unparalleled to this day.  His ability to craft such scathing commentary into his songs is what led many to give him the nickname of "Gentle Giant."  The music he created throughout his career served as the blueprint for soulful funk, and one can hear its progression even from his early days as part of the team at Motown Records.  Though many point to his creations on Superfly as his crowning achievement, in many ways, the album misses much of his true talent, and one can also see his songs there as a bit restrained in content.  His follow-up release, 1973's Back To The World, is very fitting in title, as Mayfield gets even more critical of the state of the world, as well as the plight of African-American's living in the big cities of the United States.  Giving what can be seen as a forewarning of the problems to come, "Future Shock" hits perfectly from every angle, as the deep, dark groove from the music serves as an ideal backing for the stark, almost helpless feel that the lyrics and singing convey.  The fact that the groove is never lost, even amongst these rather grim words is a testament to just how amazing a composition one can find in the song, and it is the juxtapositions and unique genius found on 1973's "Future Shock" that solidify Curtis Mayfield's status as one of the true icons in all of music history.

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