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Aretha Franklin’s “Almighty Fire” Reviewed

Wait a second, this WASN’T released on CD and to streaming services? The second Aretha Franklin-Curtis Mayfield album was swept into the cobwebs of pop history? One of the greatest singers and one of the greatest songwriters collaborating for the final time (except, of course, for “Back To Living Again”) and nobody, I guess I mean Atlantic, bothered to release it again? This is the fourth out of five that have failed to have an afterlife due to cultural nihilism.

In 1978, at the height of disco, the world lost sight of Aretha and as the brilliance that is Almighty Fire proves, Aretha was in a steady descent not artistically but culturally, and it seemed to if not be over, not selling very well. Perhaps deservedly so, but not with 1977’s Sweet Passion (here) and not for Almighty Fire. The latter is eight perfect Curtis Mayfield in succession and with the title track maybe not as great as “Giving Him Something He Can Feel” (the disco effect: he leans too hard into the groove) but each song is a complete jewel of orchestration and dance vibes and Aretha was still in her prime, whatever ravishes time would take (and not many: I saw her at Radio City in April 2017, she passed in August 2018, and she sounded terrific) none would be audible in 1978.

I’ve digged around for reviews around that time and they were bafflingly negative, Robert Christgau discounted Almighty Fire with a dumb one liner dissing religion, and while religious ecstasy might deserve it the album sure didn’t. However, the Dean Of Rock Critics also gave Aretha an asinine lukewarm review of the classic Sparkle -the previous Aretha-Mayfield collab, and he seems at odds with Aretha because, well, the songs in the late 70s needed to be a little better. That isn’t true of any here except the track that ends the album that she co-wrote with her then husband Glynn Turman, the level of performance, singing, arranging and song are that first rate. To steal a line from someone else (can’t remember who!!), this is the sort of soul funk that couldn’t be found again with a map.

At least “Almighty Fire (Woman Of The Future)” -the title track, made its way on the 2021 nearly five hour compilation Aretha, and decidedly deserves to be so as the place setter on a remarkably set of requited love tracks. It isn’t disco as such, though it is sure four on the floor, the sound isn’t digital and while the performances are fast and blasting dance music they emerge from funk and not straight up beats. And the entire album (except the one Curtis didn’t write) would be highly responsive to remixes, “Close To Me” might be borderline ballad but the first five songs are relentlessly brilliant, definitive bangers. I would loved to have heard them perform the album on stage and album, I might remind you, that wasn’t very popular. Whereas in 2022 (and indeed, to a certain extent in 1978), it would be all beats and synths, Curtis is congas, drums and bass with horns as punctuation, it settles in on one ace groove and then finds another.

According to thedrop.fm (here) “The album peaked at No. 63 on the U.S. charts, No. 12 on the R&B charts and sold 100,000 copies. Her singles were barely heard on the radio. The songs ‘Almighty Fire (Woman of the Future)’ peaked at No. 103 on the pop charts and ‘More Than Just a Joy’ peaked at No. 51 on the U.S. R&B charts. She blamed a lack of poor marketing from her record label, Atlantic Records for the album’s lack of commercial success.” Also noted here, Atlantic were busy promoting the Stones “Miss You” and clearly missed one.

But we all miss one here and there during a sixty year plus career, that is not an excuse for failing to rre-mix and re-release it on every format available. This is the second masterpiece struggling to be re-evaluated in a row.

Aretha Franklin wasn’t even out of her thirties.

Grade: A

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