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There's No Place Like America Today
Curtis Mayfield

Curtom 5001
Released: April 1975
Chart Peak: #120
Weeks Charted: 11

Curtis MayfieldKind of like a "greatest sounds" album, offering a sampling of the best of everything Mayfield has to offer, from the "Superfly" sound to ghetto protest to love songs to gospel to a sound very close to the early Impressions. The secret here is that Curtis does not dwell on any one sound long enough to bore the listener. For the fan of the wah wah guitar there's lots of that, for those who like vocal harmonies there's some of that and for those who enjoy his subtle protest there's some of that, too. Excellent guitar work from Curtis and from veteran jazz and rock man Phil Upchurch. Mayfield's voice is the same unique falsetto while the instrumental backup is more varied than in previous products, mixing the basic guitar, keyboard, bass, and drum sound with some excellent, jazzy sax solos. Best cuts: "Billy Jack," "So In Love," "Jesus," "Blue Monday People," "Hard Times."

- Billboard, 1975.

Bonus Reviews!

I had hoped the featureless doodling of his post-Super Fly albums just meant he was treading water while transferring from Viewlex to Warner Comm. Instead it appears that he was seeking new standards of incoherence. D+

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

Curtis Mayfield continued his string of powerful, assertive message albums with this mid-'70s release, but, as luck would have it, the only hit the album scored came with a love tune, "Only You, Babe." Still, the title tune, "Hard Times," "When Seasons Change" and "Blue Monday People" were unrelenting, unapologetic statements of frustration and anger. Mayfield also included "So In Love" and "Love to the People" to balance the menu, but the finest cuts addressed the inequities and injustices he saw being ignored. * * * *

- Ron Wynn, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

Taking on longer forms and conceptual compositions didn't serve Mayfield well on There's Not Place Like America Today, which features preachy raps on themes not conducive to partying. * * 1/2

- Lawrence Gabriel, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

As a singer, songwriter, social commentator, and musical pioneer, Curtis Mayfield was an original, and one of the twentieth century's most talented popular musicians. His 1972 soundtrack album Superfly won Mayfield great acclaim and a wide audience, but by 1975 black American music was becoming disco-oriented, with most songs simple celebrations of hedonism. Mayfield reacted with There's No Place Like America Today, one of the bleakest ever artistic comments on being black in the United States. The cover has a line of black people dwarfed by a huge billboard featuring a smiling white family. Recreated from Margaret Bourke-White's 1937 photograph, it conveys the chasm between the American Dream and street-level reality.

As with Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, Mayfield unflinchingly outlines the dilemmas he sees around him, but gently and resolutely preaches hope. Opener "Billy Jack" chronicles a small-time criminal who ends up murdered; the gospel-esque "When Seasons Change" looks at the despair that underlies so much poverty. "So In Love" is a gorgeous Mayfield love song, while "Jesus" considers the possibility of spiritual redemption. "Blue Monday People" is a plea to love more than money; "Love To The People" delivers an uplifting message about loving your community.

On release, the album proved popular with black Americans but -- perhaps unsurprisingly -- was ignored by whites. Since then There's No Place... has only taken on a greater resonance.

- Garth Cartwright, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.

Curtis Mayfield's fingerprints are on some of the most stirring and significant popular music ever made. During the Motown explosion of the mid-'60s, the singer, songwriter, guitarist, and producer developed his own take on Temptations-style group harmony, by way of smooth swaying singles ("Gypsy Woman") and mountains-moving calls to consciousness ("People Get Ready," a hymn of the civil rights movement). When message music began to infiltrate the pop charts, Mayfield served up the subversive soundtrack to Superfly, which counters the blaxploitation film's message with sorrowful, gritty sketches of inner-city poverty and violence. When funk began getting freaky in the early '70s, Mayfield put together one of the era's tightest bands (see Curtis/Live!), and with his weeping wah-wah leads and chicken-scratching rhythm guitar, he showed subsequent generations the fine points of groove production.

No single album fully captures the contribution of Mayfield, the perpetually underestimated genius who was paralyzed in 1990 when a lighting truss struck him on a concert stage in Brooklyn. This ironically titled 1975 gem might just be the best appetizer from the enormous Mayfield menu. Though it offers no big hits, it's got stellar examples of his primary song types -- from abiding affirmations of faith (the proud gospel-tinged "Jesus," "Love to the People") to celebrations of romance ("So in Love") to laments about poverty and violence ("Hard Times," "Billy Jack"). Each is sung from a perch slightly above the scrounging streets, and most feature at least a bit of Mayfield's trembling falsetto, which knits anger and empathy into a unified expression, the thoughts of an uncle dismayed by a wayward nephew.

Of the songwriters who made it their business to testify about the brutality of America's inner cities, Mayfield is the most effective. His songs are educations in themselves. Anyone seeking perspective on the African American experience from the 1960s onward should know about this rare poet, who speaks powerful truth even as the music around him drips with sweetness, grace, and compassion.

- Tom Moon, 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, 2008.

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