There are lots of old saws about facing one’s fears. Pundits from Theodore Roosevelt to Yoda have eloquently espoused the benefits of taking action over being ruled by one’s apprehensions and hesitations. Curtis Harding gives his take on it over a sultry soul beat on the self-titled cut of his latest release. The sexiness of his delivery may fool you into thinking he’s singing about some kind of carnal activity. But a closer listen reveals the night terrors with which he’s concerned are of a more mortal kind. Death will greet us all someday. The best we can do is to be cool and stay strong.
One doesn’t have to be Sigmund Freud to understand the relationship between sex and death. Harding’s suggestion that “If you’re afraid of the grave, be brave and pick up the phone” turns his comfort into a booty call. The anxiety of life loss is as good of a reason to make corporeal love as any other excuse. The comfort of another can help one tackle another day.
Harding co-wrote each of the 11 tracks songs. They are short on particulars and long on platitudes. Normally that’s a bad thing, but Harding makes it work through his relentless expressiveness. Whether he’s singing about leaving or getting back together with his girlfriend, working too hard, drinking at the bar, or just being pissed off at the world, Harding vocalizes about it with a poignant ache that says more about the human condition than mere words can say. He’s frequently joined on vocals by Amber Mark, who knows how to stay in the background yet remain a powerful presence. That creates a dialogue more than a duet and causes lines such as Harding crooning, “I’m gonna tell you right now baby whatever the fuck you do that shit drives me crazy” into a profound statement of commitment. Mark’s cynical response makes you understand how hard Harding has to work to be believed.
This is smooth soul music with musical snatches that recall the classic tunes of Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and others thanks in part to the production tricks of Danger Mouse and Sam Cohen. Cohen also plays guitar and bass on almost all of the tracks and keeps the beat slow and steady without coming off as ponderous. He keeps the groove steady so that Harding can take off on falsetto or change the lyrical flow without losing the song’s foundation. So when Harding slips into an “ooh ooh” on “Need My Baby”, or starts talking in the middle of “Need Your Love”, it comes off as an essential part of the material instead of filler. The cuts stay tight.
The famous sayings about facing one’s fears being the path to enlightenment suggest there’s a reason for everything. Harding implies that may not be true. But he offers a more insightful rationale. If being afraid makes one hold on to another person, that’s motivation enough to celebrate being scared. That’s a wise observation. People do what they do for a multitude of reasons, but there is none better than to become closer with our fellow human beings in the name of love. Harding’s music provides a sensual soundtrack for such activities.