ARETHA FRANKLIN: HEY NOW HEY (THE OTHER SIDE OF THE SKY) (1973)
1) Hey Now Hey (The Other Side Of The Sky); 2) Somewhere; 3) So Swell When You're Well; 4) Angel; 5) Sister From Texas; 6) Mister Spain; 7) That's The Way I Feel About Cha; 8) Moody's Mood; 9) Just Right Tonight; 10*) Master Of Eyes.
This record initiated Aretha's critical and commercial decline — but for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps inspired by recent examples of artistic liberation such as Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, Franklin dared to put forward a record that took more chances than usual, aspiring to something larger than just another hit package — and was duly castigated. Duly, in the sense that she could never hope to ascend the heights of Stevie's musical genius (she is, after all, primarily a singer and interpreter), nor did she choose the infallible path of putting forward such a Mother of all Socially Conscious Albums as was Gaye's What's Going On (whose purely musical aspects, in my opinion, frankly, leave much to be desired in the wake of its reputation).
Instead, Hey Now Hey, co-produced by Aretha herself with the already legendary Quincy Jones, simply opts for a more experimental, more serious approach. The album is quite intentionally non-hit-oriented; the closest thing to a potential hit is Carolyn Franklin's pleasant, conservative ballad 'Angel', and, true enough, as a single it sold better than the LP itself. But the rest of it has Aretha doing all sorts of unpredictable things — like engaging in multi-part suites with alternating soft and hard bits (title track); singing consoling odes to miserable junkies ('Mr. Spain'); putting on Ella Fitzgerald's shoes as a scat singer ('Moody's Mood'); and simply writing — a lot: more than half of the songs here are either credited to Aretha all by herself or co-written with Quincy. Quite a precedent, neh?
As I said, the gamble did not pay off; critics were mostly underwhelmed, and fans bewildered. But I dare say Hey Now Hey belongs to those not-of-their-time stacks of albums that simply wait to be rediscovered, taking as much time as they need to; in the future, it may yet be seen as a major highlight for the lady. Perversely, it is exactly the two most frequently lauded tracks that, I think, are the album's corniest: 'Angel' shows that Carolyn Franklin was much better at writing pop songs than ballads, and should have been better left to Roberta Flack; and the lush orchestrated cover of 'Somewhere' cannot hope to beat the original (and Bernstein or no Bernstein, the original is still little more than a sappy Broadway number).
The rest mostly rules, though. The title song throws you off the track in a great way, wobbling between the Friscoish psychedelic bridges and the Funkadelic-style verses; if Aretha truly wrote this, it is the most complex and rewarding thing she ever did. 'Sister From Texas' is oddly dark and mysterious, and, for my money, spreads God's message more effectively than all of Amazing Grace put together. 'Mister Spain', on the outside, employs much the same arrangement techniques as 'Angel', but touches upon rougher and darker subjects and is completely devoid of whiffs of cheese so prominent on 'Angel'. 'So Swell When You're Well' pulsates with fun, in the good old steady blues-rock way, and so does 'Moody's Mood', in the jazz way.
Some of the tracks are overlong, and there is little feel of consistency; if anything, it reeks of a job well conceived, but sort of executed mid-way through, which may explain the critical resistance: intellectuals like their concept albums smoothly oiled and well polished. Clearly, the lady was trying to bite off a bit more than could be chewed; clearly, with more than a decade of show-biz behind her back and six years of superstardom assured with a winning formula, it would be hopeless to try and, all of a sudden, apply for the position of «The Brains of Black Music». But anything of the sort is still miles better than simply giving in to mainstream trends of the time and eroding your reputation with the general flow...
...which, unfortunately, is exactly what happened; perhaps, had the album been even a little more successful and critical reply more positive, the rest of Franklin's career in the Seventies (at least in the Seventies; no hope for the Eighties, ever) would not have dragged so miserably. Thumbs up, then, for a flawed, but extremely interesting and, in parts, highly inspiring record that is so absolutely unique in her catalog.