An indelible impression

Michael E. Ross reviews "New World Order" by Curtis Mayfield.

By Michael E. Ross

Published October 14, 1996 9:03AM (EDT)

these are days we spend looking for some kind of sign, something that
tells us, clearly and plainly, that everything has, in fact, not gone to
hell. More and more, it seems, we're reaching back to past sources of
inspiration to hold on to, even while those inspirations may be just
holding on themselves.

You can't listen to "New World Order," Curtis Mayfield's complex,
wistful jewel of a record, without being swept up in the changes that gave
birth to it: life's precipitous pageant of joy and pain, the inevitability
of tragedy and, always, the triumph of the spirit, the spirit Mayfield has
celebrated in a generation's worth of lapidary R&B.

This album is the first Mayfield has released since tragedy came home.
On August 14, 1990, at an outdoor concert at Wingate
Field in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn, New York, Mayfield was
struck and paralyzed from the neck down by a lighting scaffold that fell
during a windstorm. As you'd expect, an album released in the wake of such
an event wouldn't be an occasion for high-fives everywhere; that old saw
about things being "darkest before the dawn" is only true if you've got a
dawn to look forward to.

It took a while for Mayfield -- a proud man who led the Impressions
("People Get Ready," "It's All Right") in the '60s, pioneered the "Chicago
sound" of lush, funky R&B (the "Superfly" soundtrack) in the '70s, and
whose style has influenced everyone from Vernon Reid to Whitney Houston
since -- to look forward to his own personal daybreak again. But look
forward he does. In these 13 songs, there's a call for second chances, a
search for solutions. The man who in 1964 told us to "keep on pushin'" has
found the need to heed his own priceless advice.

The title track proves that Mayfield's talent for shaded meaning is very
much alive. The song's lyrics are upbeat, overwhelmingly positive. But the
music tells another story. In a rueful minor key, the melody imparts a
texture of sadness and world-weariness at odds with the lyrics' sunniness.
There are other references to his fate. In the spare, bluesy "Here But I'm
Gone," a sense of quiet desperation emerges. Mayfield asks the same
question again and again -- "how did I get so far gone?" -- in that way we
have of asking questions we know can't be answered. The song is an acid
coda to his personal troubles. In interviews, Mayfield has conceded that
chances for rehabilitation are slim. What he hasn't conceded is the part
music plays in his life.

Consider his voice. Mayfield's tenor, while evocative, has always been a
thin, seemingly fragile wraith of an instrument. You'd think such an
accident would make breathing difficult, much less singing. But, no --
Mayfield's voice, especially on "No One Knows About a Good Thing" and the
joyful "Back to Living Again," is as expressive as ever, its feints and
inflections still there but with a new maturity and foundation.

Mayfield has always preferred to view larger situations through the
personal lens. That comes through in the last song, "Oh So Beautiful."
While it's got all the trappings of an R&B love song, Mayfield's lyrics
speak to an embrace of the world, not just one person in it, as the means
to salvation.

"Oh yeah, I live for the music," Mayfield told Rolling Stone in 1993.
With "New World Order," he shows that he still does. Displaying the social
concern he's made a second career and the soulful, steeped-in-the-church
sounds that made him such an indelible Impression, Curtis Mayfield is back,
big-time. You want somebody to believe in? He's the man.

Michael E. Ross

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