Blog 1102: Why I’m So In Love with Curtis

One A Day is a great, and very personal music blog by brothers Jonno and David (and sometimes Zac) Seidler, who have lots to say about the music they love. They invited me to write something for them, and here it is: a blog about of one of my favourite tracks by Curtis Mayfield ~ read it here.

A quick introduction from me, before I get into talking about today’s song. I’m Ray Mann, a musician (and other things) from Sydney. After being the recipient of some eloquent and entertaining love from the Seidler boys time and time again, and being a big fan of this blog myself (when it’s not about me!), when Jonno asked me to write a guest post I couldn’t say “Yes!” fast enough (probably because Jonno talks even faster than I do).

“So In Love” is sweet nothings whispered in musical form. Lyrically, Curtis says everything he has to say in those three titular words; everything else he has to say, he says through the sound of his voice and the horns. This song sounds the way the singer is telling us he feels – and that’s an impressive quality in any song.

So much of what makes this song magical is that voice. Curtis Mayfield’s voice is the sound of a smile; it’s all heart, and always sweet as molasses. Throughout his music, he’s used that voice just as much to woo a lover as to implore folks towards a greater sense of social conscience (“People Get Ready”, the Kanye-sampled “Move On Up”, “Freddie’s Dead”, even “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go”).

Although this song is about a moment between two lovers, a state-of-the-union during the best of times, Curtis’ zoom-in / zoom-out way of looking at any situation is still at work in his deceptively carefree delivery here. Lyrically, Curtis’ scope ranges from the tiniest, and ultimately most important of details (the taste of the kiss of his lover in this song), to the bigger picture of the context of the relationship he and his lover share (the idea that a love that can produce moments and feelings like this is just as big a concern as anything else going on in the world).

Funnily enough, it’s a full minute before Curtis even begins to sing. And what a minute: the languid rhythm section, led by a meandering keyboard, lures you right into bed; then the horns announce you’re exactly where you need to be. By the time Curtis’ voice enters, the statement has been made; his delicately-delivered “So In Love” is the full stop to that instrumental sentence, and the song may as well end there, so effectively has it said what it set out to say. But, just like all good moments, you don’t want it to end – and this song happily steals you away for a few minutes more.

As a songwriter, I learned some important lessons from this song. One was the idea that, sometimes, what you have to say can be better conveyed by the music alone. Sometimes you have to sit still in this thing you’ve created, and have confidence that the vessel you’ve built will actually carry you and your message. That may seem obvious, but when you’ve got that pen in your hand and you’re struggling to cram your meandering emotional ideas into too few syllables over impossibly finite lines whose endings also have to rhyme, it’s not the most intuitive thing to let go and say: “You know what? I’m just gonna let the sound of the keyboard say the rest.” Listening to a song, and writing a song, activate two very different parts of the brain.

Curtis, being a composer and an arranger as well as a lyricist, is so good at putting down that pen – in a way I would love to be able to do myself, if only I were a fraction as fluent with horns and strings as he.

Curtis’ fragile, intimate vocal delivery of his bite-sized lyrics make his songs sound deceptively small, when they are actually huge. That tag-teaming of his with the horns is your clue to that fact in “So In Love”. Horns are not quiet things; you wouldn’t lay in bed playing trumpet to your partner’s face – at least, you wouldn’t have the right to be surprised if they jumped right out and ran out of the room. Yet here is an entire horn section, blasting out those glorious lines, helping to convey the message that this guy is whispering right into his lover’s ear – and somehow, it works.

It’s testament to the power and beauty of Curtis’ voice that all the complex arrangement never overpowers his vocal, or overwhelms the listener. All of that lush instrumentation is purely in the service of him – not his vocal delivery, but his message.

It’s actually really hard trying to cover a Curtis Mayfield track, mainly because he lets the orchestra do so much of the talking. I used to put him in the same basket as other great soul singers – Marvin, Aretha, Otis – where, if you strip the song down to the barest of backing and a voice, you can still convey something that resembles the original song. Each of them is a singer whose role, as an interpreter of a song, is convey the same message whether they’re backed by the Funk Brothers or awash in Phil Spector hugeness. On the other hand, Curtis’ band, especially the horns, are saying so much that is so crucial to his message, that it’s hard to imagine his songs sounding right any other way.

A total Sunday morning, laying-in-bed record, especially if you’ve got company – just leave your own trumpet out of it.

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