ARETHA FRANKLIN: A WOMAN FALLING OUT OF LOVE (2011)
1) How Long I've Been Waiting; 2) Sweet Sixteen; 3) This You Should Know; 4) U Can't See Me; 5) A Summer Place; 6) The Way We Were; 7) New Day; 8) Put It Back Together Again; 9) Faithful; 10) His Eyes Are On The Sparrow; 11) When 2 Become One; 12) My Country 'Tis Of Thee.
Almost ended up missing this one. Apparently, Aretha's first album of «original» material in eight years only got an exclusive release through Walmart — this should give us a few hints at the average audience of Aretha Franklin these days — and, although it did get some press coverage, this time around there was not even the faintest trace about any «comeback» hullabaloo. In fact, I do believe that Aretha's choice of hat for President Obama's inauguration made far more of a social wave than this album. Even if it does include her performance of ʽMy Countryʼ as a bonus gift for those who missed turning on the TV set on January 20, 2009, preferring a leisurely, relaxed stroll down the Walmart aisles two years later.
Not that the lack of interest was in any way unfair, since — mildly speaking — this is not a very good album. There are, in fact, only two merits to it. One, Aretha's voice got a little better: naturally, it is still an old lady's voice and will always remain that way, but either she does not try so hard to reach the highest notes or merely manages to cut down a bit on the breathiness — in any case, the age issue does not stay on my mind as constantly here as it does when listening to her Christmas records. Two, she is very much «acting her age» — there is no «music for the body» here whatsoever, just ballads, gospel tunes, and a few light-jazz / blues-de-luxe cuts for good measure: a fine decision, actually, since it relieves us of the impolite temptation to poke nasty fun at the lady. An icon is an icon, after all.
And yet, this time I am also quite sure that I would rather want to hear the lady go completely retro, pushing out a slew of inferior copies of past successes, than listen to this bland, thoroughly faceless collection of so-called «songs», all of them written and produced according to the legislation of «modern R&B» — which means sitting through oceans of synthesized wishy-washiness as Aretha weaves predictable tapestries of melismas over them. Of all these tunes (most of them contributed by outside corporate songwriters), only three stand out at once, and none of them for a particularly good reason:
— ʽSweet Sixteenʼ, announced as a tribute to B. B. King, is soaked in a strongly traditionalist sauce, and may be Aretha's most retro-sounding track she's done in years; however, the choice is fairly strange, since this is very much a male song in lyrics and spirit, and there are no attempts here to remedy the ridiculousness of the situation (although whoever is playing that guitar adds at least a few minutes of fresh musical breath to the overall turgid experience);
— ʽFaithfulʼ, a gospel duet with Karen Clark-Sheard, is a six-minute monster that becomes completely unbearable as it reaches the two-minute mark; sheer aural torture for seasoned masochists by the four-minute mark; and a good cause for a «I-have-lived-through-this» medal if you survive all six. If this stuff is, in any way, typical for modern gospel, I will stick with my Mahalia Jackson (or, actually, with my Amazing Grace, for that matter) until the end of time — instead of visions of angels, what I see is two unfortunate women forced to dance barefoot on a bed of red-hot rocks, and I am no sadist to enjoy that;
— ʽHis Eye Is On The Sparrowʼ is not Aretha at all: it is a promotional spot for her son Eddie, who has turned into an accomplished, professional, sincere gospel singer with a strong set of pipes, and he ain't afraid to use them, drawing out those notes as best he can to challenge Morten Harket. That said, I have no idea who could actually be interested in listening to him other than out of sheer curiosity — there is no subtlety in his delivery, just a mechanical pump-iron drive. Maybe he believes that the longer your notes are, the higher your chances of God hearing them. Provided God operates at the speed of sound, of course.
The rest is divided into one hi-tech lounge jazz number (ʽU Can't See Meʼ), one clap-your-hands light-mode R&B dance number (ʽNew Dayʼ, the closest the album comes to «body music», but still not quite), and ballads, ballads, ballads, all of them freely interchangeable within the confines of the waste basket. If you ask me, the album should have never hit even the counters of Walmart, let alone anybody's personal collection. If it makes Ms. Franklin happy, let it be — it is not easy to settle into hopeless retirement after half a century in the music business. In fact, let her release as many more of these as it takes to sweeten the latter part of her life. But what's up with the title? A Woman Falling Out Of Love with whom? Her family? Her fans? President Obama? The world at large? If anything, the title should have been Falling Out Of Fashion — as is also suggested by the awful hairstyle and cheeky red dress — and she should have known better: competing with Beyonce and Rihanna is a hard time even for the former Queen of Soul, when you are pushing seventy. Even without intentionally trying to sound sexy and young. Nothing personal here, but an inevitable thumbs down.