“Now in this present darkness all ears just listen, a mass has formed to cure the common condition.” Traumas materialized by the recent Covid-19 and fatal racial police attacks have forced people to come together to supportive bubble, all hoping for positive change. Curtis Harding’s third album If Words Were Flowers also aims to have that kind of effect. The Atlanta-based musician wants his new record to remind people they are not alone, provide comfort to those feeling vulnerable and express that he, like many people, go through similar downfalls. Flowers is something that you give to a person to show that you care about and this being part of the record’s title, metaphorically explains the purpose for his songwriting this time around.
Hardings’ new LP is an awe-inspiring collection of songs about the need for companionship in the high and low moments of our lives, set to Harding’s brand of erudite yet erratic soul music. Like previous albums Soul Power and Face Your Fear it blends the expected traits of 70s soul with unorthodox blemishes from hiphop (through the drum beats and Harding’s vocals) to the swirling hypnotic qualities of psychedelic rock, topped up with orchestral and jazzy sophistication.
Now there’s also electronic effects in the mix. ‘So Low’ being an example. An anxious flute wails over what sounds like blinking lights in a Star Trek spaceship. Curtis Harding’s voice is just as surprising. Although admittedly his voice has never been one dimensional – sometimes it sounds like Stevie Wonder (‘Explore’, ‘The One’) and sometimes he raps, having previously been in a rap group – it always maintains an authentic quality. However on this occasion it goes through a contemporary filter to sound more like The Weeknd. In an interview Harding admittedly that If Words Were Flowers‘ producer Sam Cohen convinced the vocalist to try new things, but some might think the voice’s disingenuousness is distracting from the tracks’ other qualities, such as the lyrics which poignantly hint at alcoholism. “I hit the bar to fill my cup. I take it to the head. Wish I was in bed. With my baby instead.”
The One’ also uses woozy electronic effects and like a lot of tracks has strong wooden drumming – the percussion on the record is really impressive and expansive with other regular uses of tambourine, xylophone and some inclusion of güira. ‘The One’ mentions this album’s theme of combating isolation: “I know loneliness but I’m going try my best /Now that we’re alone.” However more effective examples of togetherness are on ‘I Won’t Let You Down’ – which has a simple structure of ragtimey piano and gospel singing – but the track sounds like an optimistic response to ‘So Low’ as the protagonist offers support: “There’s an old friend. Just hanging around. When you need me. I won’t let you down”. ‘With You’, which features the vocals of Sasami, expresses loneliness into a charming serenade through the gorgeous amalgamation of acoustic guitar, sweet drops of xylophone and filmic strings accompanying lyrics such as “The sun shines bright with you. You are my light with you. I’m never alone with you”.
‘Where’s The Love’ – not to be confused with a similarly titled Black Eyed Peas song – and ‘Hopeful’ are the most fascinating highlights on If Words Were Flowers. The former has a good use of trumpets, sax, blues guitar and old skool drum machine and the style of vocalizing is reminiscent of a Gil Scott-Heron track. Curtis Harding sings hypothetically of a world in the future without love. “What if one day. Love couldn’t be found. You search the highest mountain. Even looked underground.” He goes on to explain the health detriments of this: “ The science of pathology couldn’t even explain thе effects to our bodies. Thе feeling of disdain. An insatiable hunger. No one or nothing could fill.” It’s always worth praising lyrics that can make the listener imagine a different world, in this case a dystopian hereafter.
‘Hopeful’ is triumphantly effectual. The accompanying music video documents the tragedy of George Floyd’s death and the protesting aftermath. The song itself feels it could be sung at a rally. Curtis Harding sounds like a preacher firstly because his lyrics are intellectual and motivational: “Don’t fret cause it ain’t over yet. But by the time it is, your cries will turn into cheers. No fears just hold on tight. ‘Cause the darkness will be over by the end of the fight. With doubt and fear jealousy
All the things that cause casualty. To your soul let it go. Most of all be hopeful”.
Secondly, due to the gospel-sounding backing singers chanting with the words “Hopeful” with an immense power. When the electric guitar comes in it evolves into a stunning wave of funkilicious energy that’s a kin to something from Janelle Monaé’s masterpiece The ArchAndroid. On here and the album as a whole Curtis Harding majestically sounds like he’s from different decades at the same time.The album cry’s for collective action is suitable for any time period.