“People Get Ready” was a vessel for the zeitgeist of the Civil Rights Movement. The Impressions’ earnest, glowing harmonizer made a perfect anthem, thanks to a sing-a-long chorus and a positive, be-gospeled message: a fair shake is on it’s way because there’s a train a-comin’. A simple, powerful, beautiful song.
Curtis Mayfield wrote that song in 1964, but as the decade progressed, his songwriting grew more focused and aggressive… less a prayer, more a message. The richly textured, “vocal group” sound of the early ‘60s Impressions thinned and was rearranged to make even more room for Mayfield’s distinct and conscious presence. His unmistakable, high-climbing voice was otherworldly, but by the late ‘60s it was no longer angelic but prophetic.
With Mayfield’s late ‘60s output, we’re able to glimpse the artist in a period of transition, both sonically and topically. We’re a Winner, This is My Country, The Young Mods Forgotten Story—in these records he hasn’t completely devoted his art to preaching a message, but he’s extremely conscious and experimenting with how best to state what’s on his mind. These records are the sketches, the studies for Mayfield’s “message”-laden concept albums like Super Fly that he would later craft as a solo artist. That’s not to say these albums aren’t excellent. While Young Mods had a big hit with “Choice of Colors,” 1968’s This Is My Country is hands-down the best, most cohesive full-length from this era.
Mayfield had mostly been the man in charge with The Impressions, but on This Is My Country, Sam Gooden and Fred Cash clearly play backup to Curtis. He’s tapping out the group’s sound as The Impressions to pave the way for a smooth transition into being a solo artist. The record was the first on his new label, Curtom Records, and it heralded the beginnings of Mayfield striking out on his own with a mighty fanfare.
The band’s sound is ornate and luxurious. It’s flooded with symphonic accents and counterpoint that ratchet up the typically lush and clean sound of pop, Chicago soul music into an even loftier realm. Mayfield’s sweeping, full-bodied orchestral sound was something entirely new and overwhelming. For example, the string and brass arrangements on This Is My Country aren’t so much accompaniment, but essential orchestrations that give the songs their punch. Mayfield’s songs unfold with harpsichord-like jangling, rolling timpani and fast-whirring string sections. Perhaps the rich, decadent sound of the music provides a pad for Mayfield as he experiments with his style. Regardless, This Is My Country doesn’t sound syrupy or overdone—the overall effect is transcendent.
The record cover features Mayfield dressed to the nines (sans his trademark glasses) standing in front of the other two Impressions, all atop a pile of rubble. This jarring struck-pose combined with the album’s charged-up title track and it’s immersive sound lay bare Mayfield’s bold political intentions, even if the album isn’t all about social issues.
“They Don’t Know” is the most ‘fun’ track. It has got a powerful, driving beat but also striking lyrics that highlight the progression in Mayfield’s tact from “People Get Ready.” It’s more explicit than the group’s vague, gospel based touchstone hit—Mayfield’s calling out using the collective “we.” He’s pleading for a leader, an instructor to help people help themselves out of poverty. The chorus has strong words: “every brother is a leader/ every sister is a breeder.” It re-contextualizes the peaceful, hopeful sentiment from “People Get Ready” into one of aggression. It’s a fight and every brother can lead the charge (and, uh, every sister can just at home and pop out more soldiers). It’s a furious and grandiose chorus that’s first and foremost impassioned. Its heightened emotion matches the huge sound of the accompanying music to great effect, although it’s not as explicit or as fully articulated as his songs on the grittier, funkier concept soundtrack for Super Fly.
Besides the title track, the only other song that really indicates a sign of the times is “Love’s Happening,” which riffs on “hippie beats” and “flower child” tropes. It was 1968 after all. The meat of the album is about love and heartbreak. “I’m Loving Nothing”—my personal favorite—is one of the more conservative pieces of songwriting, but it’s a gripping study in hurt. Mayfield’s distinctive guitar playing gets an intimate feature in the song’s opening.
The rest of the love songs all delight: “Fool For You” and its explosive proclamation of a chorus, “My Woman’s Love” with its confessional, whispery vocal alongside utter orchestral bombast. The album works best, however, as a complete work. This Is My Country is a gem in the Mayfield/Impressions catalog, and it highlights a most imaginative moment for Mayfield with his Impressions in overdrive: a climax of his rococo soul-fantasies. words/ a spoto