ARETHA FRANKLIN: SWEET PASSION (1977)
1) Break It To Me Gently; 2) When I Think About You; 3) What I Did For Love; 4) No One Could Ever Love You More; 5) A Tender Touch; 6) Touch Me Up; 7) Sunshine Will Never Be The Same; 8) Meadows Of Springtime; 9) Mumbles/I've Got The Music In Me; 10) Sweet Passion.
This and the next two albums put Aretha back in a commercial slump, leading to her finally breaking her ties with Atlantic to seek better fortune with Arista. It is true that, somewhere around the mid-Seventies, Atlantic lost that «golden touch» that used to allow it to be innovative and commercially successful at the same time. But, in retrospect, it was not so much the fault of the label's bosses as it was due to the dumbing down of public taste. The label made a relatively late switch to disco, for instance, and when it did, it did not success in realigning its old guard in the new formation. What worked for Chic did not work for Aretha, and vice versa.
Sweet Passion is typical of these struggles — it is forgettable, but hardly awful. Its lone minor hit, 'Break It To Me Gently', launches an elegant attempt to combine orchestrated balladry with grumpier funk rhythms, but the hybridization may leave you cold because the individual parts are cold themselves, cold and formulaic, as if the idea never got all that far beyond just being laid out on paper, and then executed completely without enthusiasm. The same goes for most other tracks: interesting melodic ideas pop out from time to time, but never translate into genius.
Still, three tracks at least are salvageable and well worth getting to know. 'Touch Me Up' is Aretha's first true venture into disco territory, elaborated by Motown veteran Lamont Dozier, and it is a cheesy, colorful multi-layered romp (not unlike Al Green's similarly tinged 'I Feel Good') whose fun quotient suffices to overcome any formulaic banalities. But the album's true surprises await at the end. First, 'Mumbles / I've Got The Music In Me' is a retro-jazz number that features the best scat singing in Aretha's entire career (how deeply ironic that such a quirky little gem is to be found at the start of the lady's disco period, rather than well back in time when she used to do whole LPs of mediocre jazz material).
And then there is the anthemic seven-minute title track, completely self-penned and structured as a semi-free-form piece of R'n'B that moves from soft to hard and from tight chorus to loose improv without warning. It may not be a great, wond'rous composition, but it is, at the least, an interesting attempt at something unconventionally soulful, all the more surprising to turn up on a record whose primary goal is commercial success and whose primary failure is the impossibility to reach commercial success. 'Sweet Passion' never cares about any of these things, becoming, arguably, the last track in quite a long while where Aretha is actually trying to say something. This should at least be a good argument for saving it up for all the career retrospectives. The album as a whole cannot help but deserve a thumbs down — but it is not without its merits. And it is downright wrong to claim that Aretha and disco are two incompatible things, either. Too bad she never could bring herself to becoming the lead singer in Chic or something.