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April 3, 2005

Mayfield ensured his Young Mod would not be Forgotten

The Young Mods' Forgotten Story of 1969 continues songwriter Curtis Mayfield's focus on the sociopolitical realm, as Mayfield bookends material exploring relationships with tracks about the social situation. It is a delicious work—well crafted, funky, and featuring typically tight harmonies and Mayfield's silky high leads. It is also a concept album (still a rarity in R & B at the time) as the opening lyrics suggest: "Let me sing a song/ I won't make it too long/ About the Young Mods' forgotten story." Leaving aside the issue of what Mayfield means by "Mod" (anyone expecting the Kinks' sound won't find it here), these lyrics seem to indicate that the album should be understood as narrative.

But what kind of story is this? At first glance, nothing seems to hold this album together conceptually. As with the previous year's This Is My Country, social material counteracts the personal. But if one stops to consider the flow of one's thoughts during the day, don't social and personal matters flow together, in no particular order (but not necessarily at the same time)? Mayfield expresses a thought-train of personal and social concerns.

Consider the album's back cover photo, depicting the Impressions standing on the 125th Street elevated platform in Harlem, as context for the album. Waiting for the train, one's thoughts may drift among many different concerns. Of course, this would remain a somewhat tenuous concept for a record if the music itself didn't evoke the same sense of flow. Every track here makes full use of Mayfield's talents for arrangement (as well as those of newly-acquired producer Donny Hathaway). Mayfield and Hathaway bring the full spectrum: horns (even a tuba!); strings; guitars; bass; drums; bells; and the voices of Mayfield, Fred Cash, and Sam Gooden.

The orchestral majesty and social themes of the title cut give way to the more laid-back, but equally layered, "Choice of Colors," a song that continues the social concerns of the opening track: "If you had a choice of colors/ Which one would you choose, my brothers?/ How long have you hated your white teacher?/ Who says you have to love your black preacher?" Mayfield's lyrics, questions rather than statements, encourage the listener to think, and the arrangement, with its upward-moving lines, reinforces this suggestion.

The third track, "The Girl I Find," shifts moods, yet maintains the orchestral richness of the opening brace of songs. Opening with the sound of turtledoves and crickets over Mayfield's gentle guitar, the music makes it clear that this song will be a grateful reflection on the discovery of a woman that the narrator can finally love (let's call the narrator the Young Mod). The fourth track's title, "Wherever You Leadeth Me," lends this relationship a certain religiosity, although the tune itself is somewhat schmaltzy. The fifth track also evokes the gospel tradition, as Donny Hathaway's piano line works with time-tested gospel chord changes over church organ vibrato. Considering that this track, "My Deceiving Heart," is a repentant confession of infidelity, the arrangement works perfectly. The group sings, "I wish that I hadn't started/ All this pain, what a shame" as Mayfield's guitar cries out celestially high notes above his lilting voice (both of which are indeed heavenly).

"Seven Years" is the fulcrum on which the album turns, as the earlier personal songs about the joy of love have fully given way to ambivalence about the very possibility of romance. One of the most joyfully catchy rhythms kicks off an ironically cynical first verse. "Seven years, remember when you became my loving friend?/ Never forget that wonderful day, 'twas in the spring, the first of May/ Everybody was so alone, though I never meant you no harm/ I was just so in love with you, and I thought you loved me too/ Seven years, now I find/ It was just a waste of time," sings Mayfield, and contrapuntally behind him, Cash and Gooden sing, "Seven years, seven years/ I cried out lonely tears/ Having hard times, hard times." The call-and-response, again recalling Mayfield's (and Hathaway's) gospel roots, underscores the ambivalence, the simultaneous regret and relief, about the termination of this long relationship.

As the record continues, doubt persists, despite the introduction of a new girl ("Love's Miracle"), followed by a warning to the new girl ("Jealous Man," featuring some of the finest background vocals by Cash and Gooden). Pure romance has been tempered by the Young Mod's realization of his potential for jealousy ("I'll always be a jealous man"). The penultimate track, "Soulful Love," finds the three Impressions trading lines about the difficulty in even expressing love, despite being able to sing about it: "I try hard and do my best/ To bring about words to express/ To show you how much I appreciate/ Your soothing tenderness." These lyrics—after six musical attempts at just that—represent a powerful admission of doubt despite emotion.

The final track, "Mighty Mighty (Spade & Whitey)," is a political party (no pun intended). A cheering crowd, full use of the wah pedal, and a strong two-and-four kick off the album's funkiest and most danceable cut. But this is a social song, as its chorus attests: "And we who stand divided/ Some that are undecided/ Give this some thought/ In stupidness we've all been caught."

It's only fitting that Mayfield sends off the listener on a high; on the whole, his lyrics are hopeful, despite occasional doubt and regret over the past. On both the personal and social level, his album represents the thoughts of the Young Mod: standing on the 125th Street platform in Harlem, thinking about politics, thinking about love, thinking about politics again, a train of thought, waiting for the train.