Before Curtis Harding released either of his first two albums—his 2014 debut, Soul Power, or his sophomore album, Face Your Fear, out Friday—he wrote and sang backup for Cee Lo Green. This means that likely more than once, as “Fuck You” was a really popular song, Harding leaned over the frontman’s shoulder to whisper a warning: “Ooo, she’s a gold digger.” This would’ve been to put The Guy on notice, the one Cee Lo saw driving ’round town with said girl that Cee Lo loved. “Just thought you should knooowww, nigga,” he would’ve added.
It’s also possible that Harding was named after Curtis Mayfield. He’s never said so, but he’s also never denied it, and Harding’s wavelike falsetto would do his namesake proud. What has been said for certain is that Harding was born in Michigan, and his mother, Dorothy, was a traveling gospel performer. Until the age of 15, when he settled in Atlanta, he performed with her act, traveling from state to state, each stop opening a new kind of sound to him. This would later shape his personal brand of “slop-soul”—a figurative mishmash, or slop, made from the table scraps of gospel, punk, psych rock, and blues music, both the rootsy and the more commercial kinds. In other words, soul music made with garage rock means. “Keep on Shining,” the most conspicuous and treadmill-prime track on 2014’s Soul Power, is a good example of this: a sunny, simple riff with horns darting across it, a hard-driving backbeat keeping the song on its toes. Like the new-age blues of Gary Clark Jr. or Leon Bridges, it’s music that seems captive to a certain time—in this case, the ’70s. The lines “The world has to know / this little light of mine / I’m gonna let it show” are corny on their own; they sell simpler times back to you, whether or not you ever actually lived in a time when things were less complicated. But Harding’s decisive voice, seasoned by 30-some years and more than a few cigarettes, makes the words stick to the ribs. The music is traditional in form, but the function of it is more lively, youthful, and adventurous. And more purposeful than more vibey, structureless (and totally fine!) mainstream R&B tends to be.
Something about the nature of crafting classic soul in the present makes it easy to slide from homage into imitation. More so if the artist in question is adept at it, attending to every stretched vowel or funky guitar riff or layered female backing vocal. It was difficult water for Harding to tread on his first album. Before the release of his debut, Harding told Spin about his influences: Albert King, the Everly Brothers, and Ronnie Dyson. Harding said that if he kept on, he might’ve taken up the whole interview. The standards that go unnamed here are the ones that are easy to spot traces of: Mayfield, Sam Cooke, Smokey Robinson. But on “The Drive,” which sounds like a restored ’72 Chevelle fishtailing along the surface of the moon, he indulges expressive whims like someone who’s spent a fair amount of time with with Cole Alexander, singer-guitarist for audacious garage rockers the Black Lips. It was one of a handful of times the album was more than just a really good version of stuff that’s already out there. “Beautiful People” is a revivalist’s dream, but “Castaway” demonstrates what vintage soul can sound like when pushed into more modern spaces. Soul Power was proof Curtis Harding could make a good soul album, but Harding’s singleness was drowned out by reverence to The Greats. What did a good Curtis Harding album sound like?
Danger Mouse helped to answer that question. The two met in 2005, when St. Elsewhere and “Crazy” were happening, but they never managed to connect on an actual record until Mouse came to Harding’s home in Los Angeles. It was recorded on a Wednesday, and Mouse supplied some of the lyrics and a thick cloud of his signature supernatural fog, producing “Wednesday Morning Atonement,” the opener to Harding’s second album, Face Your Fear.
It begins technicolored, like the score of an old animated movie or a ballet. The song addresses the concerns of a father finding time to both be with and provide for his family. The subtext is the push and pull between competing needs and obligations, and how “the business of music can sometimes pull you away from the art of making it,” he told The Fader in an email. The theme, and the composition of the song—the tripping in the desert with no sunscreen synths slinking in and out, a guitar weeping loudly on the hook—express the fickleness of the creative process. A process which, a lot like life, is a breathing, shifting, temperamental thing that has to be adapted to. Harding’s insistence on versatility shows in how he talks about soul: not as a genre, but as something that looks increasingly different the more you pursue it. “Soul is an experience,” he told GQ. “It can be in the way you dress, the way you talk, the way you sit down in a chair. It’s a feeling that you can translate to someone with whatever you’re doing.” The more difficult trick, though, has always been innovation, which moves the big, proverbial needle from “enjoyable” to “memorable.”
At times, Face Your Fear can feel woozy and a little like a rehash, but that feeling is often confused by wretched gloom (“As I Am”), spoken word verses (“Welcome to My World”), xylophones (“Need My Baby”) or a rubbery bass line, and maybe psychedelics (“Face Your Fear,” “Go As You Are”). There’s Isaac Hayes and Jimi Hendrix to go along with the Wonder, Robinson, and Mayfield this time. “Till the End” answers the question of whether vintage soul can still be new and interesting, and the writing is derivative but earnest and hilarious: “Your shit drives me crazy, darlin’, but we’re gonna see this through.” That’s Face Your Fear in a nutshell, wrapped in cool-as-hell, paper-thin leather. Harding spends 11 songs avoiding—through some combination of skill, raw energy, and attention to detail—mimicry.
The album resists the outward, multiplying pressure to say something about the world it’s stepping into, but Harding maintains that all good music is a product of the time in which it’s made. Face Your Fear is not always memorable, mostly just enjoyable, but what’s so wrong with taking an hour just to enjoy something heartfelt that doesn’t strain itself trying to be sapient? “Some people want and need to be informed and some want and need to escape, you know?” he said in an interview with Cool Accidents. “Just make sure it’s good.”