This Is My Country
The context: When Curtis Mayfield and his Impressions released "We're A Winner" in 1967, it became an instant anthem of the emerging Black Power movement. Up to that point, The Impressions had been a unique but mostly innocuous R&B act; Mayfield sang plenty of standards alongside his own compositions, and he found steady work in Chicago as the writer of dance-floor novelties for Major Lance and affable ballads for Gene Chandler. This Is My Country came out in 1968—the first Impressions album on Mayfield's own Curtom imprint—and it accelerated the group's transition from its doo-wop-and-gospel roots to something far funkier and more mature. The evolution continued with 1969's The Young Mods' Forgotten Story—an equally great work that's usually packaged on the same CD as This Is My Country—and Mayfield's final full-length with The Impressions, 1970's Check Out Your Mind! After Mayfield went solo, his Superfly-fueled career skyrocketed, although a stage accident in 1990 rendered him a quadriplegic and led to his death nine years later. Besides inspiring innumerable funk and soul musicians—including a pre-fame Donny Hathaway, who co-wrote two of the album's tracks—This Is My Country has influenced everyone from Van Morrison and Bob Marley to Paul Weller and Ted Leo. As a time capsule, it epitomizes the conflict between commercial viability and social consciousness that marked many soul artists of the late '60s.
The greatness: A master of nuance and balance, Mayfield bookends This Is My Country with the record's two overtly political songs. The opener, "They Don't Know," is a gingerly funky call to solidarity propelled by Mayfield's lyrical guitar licks and marching orders like "We're gonna move at a steady pace / and keep every brother on the case." The closing title track is just as stirring, but for more personal reasons: "I paid 300 years or more of slave-driving, sweat, and welts on my back / This is my country," Mayfield croons over a lush, stately arrangement. He floats like an angel, but he stings like a warrior: "They'd rather fuss and fight than say it's my country," he accuses with measured outrage. (Throughout the album, the word "they" invariably refers to White America.) For all the militancy of "This Is My Country," however, Mayfield's warmth and wisdom make it feel more like a challenge than a condemnation.
The core of This Is My Country is pure candy, albeit with an acidic aftertaste. "My Woman Love" is blurred by weepy baroque flourishes, while the upbeat "Stay Close To Me" drips with romantic indignation and pleading desperation in equal doses. The first 12 seconds alone of "Gone Away" launched a million soft-soul tearjerkers of the '70s. Mayfield's orchestral curlicues, sophisticated melodies, and fluidly unorthodox time signatures had a huge impact on the songs fellow Chicagoans Eugene Record and Barbara Acklin were starting to craft at Brunswick Records, as well as on the velvety sounds Thom Bell and Gamble And Huff were cooking up in Philadelphia. (Coincidentally, one of the Philly team's first successes came the same year via Jerry Butler, the former leader of The Impressions). But This Is My Country is never overpowered by schmaltz: Even at its most syrupy, Mayfield gives his tunes elbow room, a muscular pulse, and an emotional complexity that's vengeful and redemptive all at once.
Defining song: Treading the same trail of broken hearts as Ray Charles' "A Fool For You," Mayfield's "Fool For You" appears to be the disc's darkest, harshest anti-love song. "Never liked nobody that's been mean to me / I've got a heart full of stone, and I hate the misery," Mayfield sings over a boiling pot of minor chords and major betrayal. But the chorus is a glorious surrender: "I'm a fool for you / Guess I'll always be / and I claim it famously." It's also the one track on This Is My Country that could be a camouflaged political tirade; imagine Mayfield aiming the lyrics at the United States Of America rather than at an abusive lover. Here, Mayfield downplays his call-and-response with partners Sam Gooden and Fred Cash and pushes his aching falsetto to the fore. His newly won self-sufficiency, courtesy of Curtom, seems to have rubbed off on his songwriting itself. In spite of its frustration, "Fool For You"—like all of This Is My Country—is the proud sound of Mayfield declaring ownership: of his music, of his heart, of his color, and of his conscience.