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Aretha Franklin: God Save The Queen

Maybe five months ago I wrote a post about people I don’t like but should like and top of my list was Aretha Franklin. I couldn’t “hear” her voice, I wasn’t crazy about her material, and she sucked live. The Queen of what? In her hats and her diva antics and her heard I am love me and her “white castles” and cmon, the top range cvan’t be there -I just consider the rest of the world morons. There was too much production, too much orchestration, she let the bands carry her and turned it on when she felt like it. And this despite really enjoying A Rose Is Still A Rose.

But what a difference a concert makes. Completely superb at Radio City Music Hall and never better then when singing one of the greats of soul (and any other sort of music) songs by Curtis Mayfield, I was completely overwhelmed by her. It is like a light switch went off in mybrain, or maybe like I was hearing her voice for the first time. Maybe it was the trilling, the upper most part of her voice, that was bothering me. It sounded like an affectation though it probably wasn’t.

So I went back to the record and I must have completely lost the plot on Franklin. Forget Sparkle, -one of my favorite albums by any one ever, and listen to a somewhat minor work like Jump To It with the late lamented Luther Vandross. .. But if you can pass that the songs suck  singing is unreal. It is the best soul singing I have ever heard. And now, returning to Franklin after all these years, all these songs that seemed too divaish, too overblown, are saved by a voice so full of feeling, so wide in range and depth that iffy albums blow you away. They’re all great.

Whoever she works with she improves whether it’s Dave Stewart or Van McCoy and when, in an album that defines for me the timeless brilliance of both Franklin and Curtis Mayfield, Sparkle, the feelings just crush you, they overwhelm you, it’s like running into an ex-wife you’re still in love with who you haven’t seen in five years and she’s with her new husband and their kids. The feelings catch you short, “submission don’t come easy for me” and it is what we mean we say soul music has soul. Sparkle, the entire album, “Something He Can Feel” -all of it, is the most human of sound. It cracks through the ceilings and damages the surfaces of your feelings. Of what you’re thinking and remembering. It is like the most complex of your relationships and your relationship to the album is complicated as well. That’s Mayfield, he was always obviously ambivalent, a soul man who sang about pushers and drugs (remember “Toot And Toot”?) and heaven and hell, and seemed to balance between them.

On Sparkle he tipples over and pushes Franklin over as well. Love, the big word, is so crazed, such a power struggle, such a balancing act between submission and domination: it questions so hard as to what are we willing to give of ourselves to gain this. And for Franklin, a woman defined by her insistence upon being given the respect she deserves,  she falls so hard here it is part watching the Queen topple off her crown and part watching how a Queen of soul is a queen of soul. How you can give yourself to another person and give yourself to a song. That submission, that giving, is so very important for these children of Christ, where submission is the heart of the practise of their religion. Where to give is to receive. That submission is at the heart of this completely brilliant album.

And it is at the heart of Aretha Franklin’s singing, at her best she doesn’t just sing soul, she gives a part of her soul like the way the native Americans believed the camera stole your soul, her soul steals your soul. It melts it, melds it, molds it.I f you let her she makes you more who you are. This is music about what it means to be alive, to be eternal. It is great American art.

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