ARETHA FRANKLIN: SINGS THE GREAT DIVA CLASSICS (2014)
1) At Last; 2) Rolling In The Deep; 3) Midnight Train To Georgia; 4) I Will Survive; 5) People; 6) No One; 7) I'm Every Woman / Respect; 8) Teach Me Tonight; 9) You Keep Me Hangin' On; 10) Nothing Compares 2 U.
The less said about this abomination, the more honor we pay to what used to be the greatest soul singer in the world. Quoth Clive Davis, executive producer of the album: «She's on fire and vocally in absolutely peak form. What a thrill to see this peerless artist still showing the way, still sending shivers up your spine...» In defense of Mr. Davis' questionable marketing strategy, I will admit that, every now and then, listening to this album did send shivers up my spine, but probably not quite the kind of shivers that Mr. Davis would surmise; and the peerless artist did occasionally show me the way — to the bathroom. I am almost not exaggerating here, mind you.
What is so utmostly horrible about albums like these is not merely discovering that a formerly great artist has lost all greatness. Yes, Ms. Franklin is well over 70, and her voice has become a shadow of what it once used to be, and she probably should retire, but if she really really wants to still linger in the studio, if it helps her get along in life to do these sessions every once in a while, then okay, and besides, that Christmas album wasn't that bad, on the whole. As long as we all, and the lady herself in the first place, come to terms with the fact that there will not be another Spirit In The Dark anytime soon, who are we not to let her have her fun?
No, what is really atrocious is the utmost fakeness of it all. Starting from the sickeningly made up (and probably Photoshopped, too) old dollface on the album sleeve (is she trying to compete with Nicki Minaj or what?), going on to the album title that once again brings up the horrifyingly perverted word «diva», and ending with this whole idea — to remind humanity of her Supreme Rule as the Supreme Ruler of All Things Soul, the incomparable Ms. Aretha Franklin will offer, for everyone to see and kowtow, a brief run through old school and contemporary soul classics in order to show that ʽNothing Compares 2 Herʼ. Move along, Beyoncé, Adele, and Alicia Keys — Mama's in the kitchen now, and she's gonna show y'all how to cook those ribs.
Pull the wool from Clive Davis' eyes, though, and it is pretty clear that the production on all these songs ranges from unimaginatively retro to tastelessly modern (technobeats on ʽYou Keep Me Hangin' Onʼ? Ooh, now we're talking!), that the musicianship is non-existent, that the song choices are either all too predictable or completely baffling, and that Aretha walks through this entire session in a totally somnambulant state. Her voice, at this point, is incapable of rendering proper emotionality; still capable of technically smooth modulation, yes, but all the songs are delivered in the same mode — «generally poetic», let's call it — and the delivery is so robotic that the question «why?», appearing in our minds in bloody huge red letters as the lady takes the first note, will most probably turn into such an irritating headache by the middle of the album that, hopefully, you will not have the strength to endure the lady butchering her own ʽRespectʼ, let alone becoming Prince's involuntary comical sidekick on ʽNothing Compares 2 Uʼ.
The cream of the crop is ʽRolling In The Deepʼ, the lyrics of which she delivers with all the neophyte fervor of someone so proud to have learned them phonetically — and later on down the line, the backing singers intersperse them with the chorus of ʽAin't No Mountain High Enoughʼ, even if the two songs are virtually antonymous in meaning (perhaps that was the original plan, but if so, they never went far enough to convince us that it was a good plan in the first place). I am sure that Adele herself would be happy to know that The Queen Mother of Soul herself sends her that much of a blessing, but why should we, the befuddled listeners, be involved in their royalty games? And you know something is wrong when there is an Alicia Keys tune in the setlist, and even wronger when the best thing about it are the backing vocals (the "o-wo-wo-oh-oh" bits on ʽNo Oneʼ are done expertly — well, they were the best thing on the original, too — and provide a bit of relief from listening to Aretha's caterwauling).
It could take well over a fortnight to think of all the exciting ways of poking mean fun at this album, but let me just pretend to be sure that Aretha Franklin herself was only a tool here. The lady is old, weak-willed, maybe a little weak-minded, the lady can be excused for wanting to relive her stardom, Sunset Boulevard complex and all. The real criminal here, the one who bears full responsibility for making laughing stock out of a formerly great artist, is Mr. Clive Davis — I have no interest in how many great artists he had signed to Columbia in the 1960s; whatever he is doing these days generally counts as severe crimes against music as an art form, whether it be producing Santana's Supernatural or signing fishy deals at RCA. This whole venture is his idea, a big stinking musical lie that should be wiped from memory or, at least, condemned to the sewer parts of it. Thumbs down with a vengeance — sorry, Ms. Franklin.