ARETHA FRANKLIN: SO DAMN HAPPY (2003)
1) The Only Thing Missin'; 2) Wonderful; 3) Holdin' On; 4) No Matter What; 5) Everybody Is Somebody's Fool; 6) So Damn Happy; 7) You Are My Joy; 8) Falling Out Of Love; 9) Ain't No Way; 10) Good News.
Damn happy, indeed. With seven years separating Aretha's absolute career nadir from a return to simple-boring-forgettable, and only five years more — from an album with occasional hints of genuine pleasure-giving, at this rate, one might hope for a «total fuckin' comeback» some time around, let's say, 2050. Too bad few of us will live long enough to enjoy it.
Some of the critics, who had been waiting since at least the punk revolution for an opportunity to praise Ms. Franklin for something other than just the voice, were so touched by the retro elements on this record that they dubbed it «a return to roots» and were almost set to start comparing it with her 1970's recordings for Atlantic, except what still remained of their conscience didn't really let them do it. Because, despite the superficial similarity, So Damn Happy is still essentially a fully modern R&B record, the only difference being that it does not seriously toy with hip-hop and/or electronic elements, thus avoiding the unintentional ugliness of What You Sweat.
The low points are two tracks co-written and co-performed by Mary J. Blige — they sound just like any typical number by Mary J. Blige, with Aretha's parts reduced to whiny cackling fading in and out of the steel-iron carcass of Blige's repetitive vocalization arrangements. It isn't tough street music, and Aretha is not forced into picturing something that is so totally not herself, but it is still Mary J. Blige music with novelty-value has-been guest participation; who needs this?
Another sad matter is that this conscious attempt to make the music a little retro tempts one into going back and relistening to the old records — this is where you notice how seriously her voice has really changed over the years, so much so that even really bland past efforts like Let Me In Your Life, whose cheaply exquisite furs-and-champagne style So Damn Happy brings to mind, sound like Callas in comparison. It is interesting that, as time went by, Aretha's cords seem to have been losing their lower rather than upper range — most of the time, she sings here in some exuberant semi-falsetto, which may eventually get on one's nerves, and that earthy, breathy tone of hers that used to convey so much depth and «grit», is nowhere to be found. Age is nothing to joke about, of course, and all of us could see that coming — but, unfortunately, this means that the good fairy is no longer sporting her magic wand, one that could help her out in the direst of situations, even on La Diva.
Aretha's two self-penned compositions are in the listenable-but-forgettable category (the title track tries to convey ten thousand pounds of joy, but lacks any distinct melody or interesting build-ups; its only hook is a loud, annoying "Hey boy!" that's good enough to cut down a pickpocket, but hardly for anything else), and so are, for the most part, contributions by outside songwriters of which there is about a billion and a half. In the oldies department, Burt Bacharach gets plundered for 'Falling Out Of Love', lots of sugar, sweet harp playing, and a thoroughly unimaginative reading — but at least it's four and a half minutes of genuine feeling, and as much as I hate to admit that a Burt Bacharach song can be a highlight on an Aretha Franklin record, this is exactly that kind of situation.
Overall, So Damn Happy is nothing to get real damn happy about, but it is easily the lady's first album in a long, long time that tries to remember what Aretha Franklin was all about in the first place. IF they only hadn't brought in so many outside songwriters... IF they'd kept Mary J. Blige ten miles away... IF the rhythm section had more swing to it... IF the Queen took better care of her pipes... IF all of these conditions could avoid being classified under the Irrealis label... As it is, So Damn Happy is still the closest that Aretha could ever approached a proverbial comeback, but that is still no reason to own the album unless you really love her like your long-lost, aberrant mother... and perhaps all of us should?
[PS: As a sidenote, one could seriously question the rationale behind releasing an album called So Damn Happy in the midst of the Iraq War — but let us be gentle and not hold this against the completely apolitical Queen of Soul. She did sing at Obama's inauguration as penitence, after all, even if her hat that day produced much more of an impact than her voice.]
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