Curtis Mayfield’s “Back To The World” Reviewed
Time has been exceedingly kind to Curtis Mayfield’s back catalog, the ties that bound Curtis to neo-r&b 2019 are stronger than 80s icons like Babyface and Luther Vandross. Curtis has the cool of new soul players from SZA to SiR. Like the latter two, he isn’t about melody line, he isn’t about songs, Curtis is about vibing on a groove. That’s the reason why Stephen Davis in Rolling Stone wrote the outline of a movie in his review, it sounds like soundtrack music: the songs as songs are far and few between, perhaps side two of the vinyl issue, “If I Were A Child Again” is the only one that comes close. So how good is Curtis’ fifth solo album, Back To The World? It is very good, and while it was considered a let down after the hugely successful Superfly, all it is missing is a hit.
“Funky extended grooves mix with literate exuberant songcraft on this classic,” is how Allmusic reader Gern Stroman put it. The other side of that coin is, it is about as memorable as Issac Hayes without the heavy duty orchestration, for what amounts to a jam Curtis is cool and assured, his three piece band, augmented by horns, is the essence of soul and also the essence of doing the minimal amount to keep the band on the one.
It opens with a story song, the title track, taking a black man from waiting to leave the front, to returning from Vietnam, and finding himself in worlds of trouble as he attempts to put together his life after six years in the trenches. and finding no work and no hope. The US he is back to is as unwelcoming as the Vietcong had been, and, as the war wound down in 1973, it doesn’t function as a movie sound but a background to the whirl of helicopters that begin the album, first live and then Television, and Curtis,singing in the first personifies the “gotta get back home’ as the difficulties awaiting her. “Back To The World” is as clear eyed a protest song as you ever want to hear. This is very sad stuff, “soldier boy has no job,” his woman has left him, he has been robbed, and his future is all in free fall: drug addiction can’t be far behind-. Curtis’ falsetto is way up in the mix, it is all through the seven songs, Curtis observes his downfall in a state of calculated panic.
This becomes clearer on the second song on the first side, his “Superfly” rewrite, “Future Shock”. Like the album as a whole, the book “Future Shock” by Alvin Toffler is so prescient it feels clairvoyant. In 2019, looking back at 1973, what Toffler explained about the loss of agriculture to industry, the rural to the urban, the loss of jobs via scientific breakthrough, the fear of the upheaval, and the effect of super-industrial society on the environment (not good, he claims…) all came to pass. Curtis claims early on “We got to stop all men from messing up the land, when won’t we understand this is our last and only chance,” and the entire song has a deep worrying on it even as it works as an extended funk workout. The first side closes with a slice of exasperated horror, black Churchisms, “Right On For The Darkness” -Curtis guitarist reverberates against the grooves, and doesn’t veer towards Gospel but maintains a blues funk till the words seem to be thrown out catechisms like “right on”.
Side One is impeccable -a political manifesto which finds Curtis looking with a jaundiced eye into the heart of darkness to a steady funk bass and drums and an absence of melody lines. 18 minutes of a funk, less exploratory than either George Clinton or Isaac Hayes, it is three songs of pitch black horror in the face of a yet unimaginable future. Side two has four songs, and it isn’t as good. On the first song he equates love of God with a love on a woman, and it is neither good Gospel nor good soul -the problem is, again, that the song doesn’t kick hard enough -even though it is that lack of kick which makes it so welcome in 2019’s world. “If I Were A Child” is about nostalgia and also about making the world better for the next generation. “Can’t Say Nothing” is the sound of pure frustration and “Keep On Trippin'” swoony, lovely but without being precisely memorable.
Back To The World failed to match Superfly, and failed to crossover. It doesn’t have enough hooks for the white audience or enough depth for the black community. Curtis is pained to look at the black experience in 1973, the world that the draftee reenters is stacked against him, and only God and true love can get him back out. Thematically, the black superman of Superfly is buried under the PTSD of toxic masculinity, and we all know how that works out. .