Amazing Grace is more a great Aretha Franklin album than a great gospel album. She plays havoc with the traditional styles but she sings like never before on record. The liberation and abandon she has always implied in her greatest moments are now fully and consistently achieved.
Actually, as Miss Franklin's career continues to take shape, its breadth and range become increasingly impressive. Starting with the pop singing of her early Columbia days — much of it amazingly good — she has recorded straight soul music, jazz, pop, white rock, and finally, on her last, slightly over-rated album, Young, Gifted and Black, her own brand of black MOR. She is eclectic but, like Ray Charles, capable of putting her own stamp on anything she touches.
And yet, for anyone who has seen her in flawless concert, hearing Amazing Grace reveals how often her eclecticism has been due to an erratic artistic temperament. Every Aretha Franklin album of the past has had at least one moment of genuine, incontestable human inspiration — but too many have only that one, or perhaps two at most. She has always suggested more than she has delivered and it is only on Amazing Grace that the order is reversed: She delivers more than anticipated.
As is well known by now, Aretha's background is in gospel music. She learned religion from her father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, who has recorded over 70 sermons on his own and who makes a cameo appearance here, and singing from Clara Ward, among others, after whom she modeled her early style. She returns to gospel with a vengeance but in a modernized form that incorporated her experiences in popular music. And she does it with unsurprising ostentatious conception involving a full rhythm section and the awesome Southern California Community Choir, a beautiful group that provides dramatic support during some of the album's truly cosmic moments.
Together they don't sound like any other gospel — their music lacks the sectarian quality, the lack of ornamentation, the simplicity of the older recordings. But these qualities are made up for with a new set of virtues generated out of the horizons of Aretha's vision, the sheer, unending size of it. If her approach to gospel is different than, say Marion Williams', it is surely no less holy.
And while the sound is occasionally unorthodox, the material is largely from the basic repertoire, including many songs Aretha has been singing all of her life. In nearly every case, I found myself struck first by the comprehensiveness and depth of the arrangement and then by the brilliance of her lead voice. As she hits note after note that I always knew was there but had never heard before, the distance between listener and participant falls away. Her performance is a virtuoso display of gospel pyrotechnics, done with control and imagination.
The fast numbers, the songs of unqualified joy, hit with tremendous power. "How I Got Over," with its full-bodied chorus, rock-styled rhythm section and soaring melody could easily be the first Top Ten gospel song since "Oh, Happy Day." "Old Landmark," in form very close to blues, is not quite as interesting musically, but is forceful nonetheless.
A good deal of non-traditional material is integrated throughout the program. Aretha's reading of "Wholly, Holy" is competent, but lacks the depth that Marvin Gaye's more subtle approach gave it. But a medley of "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" and "You've Got A Friend" works well, as Aretha brings out the similarity between the two songs and the obvious religious implication lying just beneath the surface of "Friend"'s secular lyrics.
Her best effort with modern material and one of the best things she has ever recorded is "You'll Never Walk Alone." That may seem a surprising choice for a gospel album, but in fact many gospel singers integrate popular inspirational material into their repertoire — "He" was a great favorite for years. I have never heard anyone take such a song and redirect it so singlemindedly. Backed by James Cleveland's superb piano playing, the performance builds from the moment it starts, reaching its obvious but still dramatic climax with the appearance of the Choir for the refrain. Aretha's voice rings out like a clarion call to righteousness, as she hits miraculous note after miraculous note, holding and unbending with a freedom that seems in itself holy.
The remainder of this album runs the gospel gamut. "Amazing Grace" is at once her most inspired technical performance but also most indicative of the album's major flaw: it is labored and overworked through repetition and a contrived slowness that exhausts the listener before it is concluded. "Mary, Don't You Weep," like so many familiar songs on this album, sounds completely new and fresh, wonderfully so. "Precious Memories" and "Never Grow Old," two songs I know better from their place in white church music, are given brooding interpretations, as Aretha reflects over every syllable of every line and explores the full meaning of the songs' subject — mortality. "God Will Take Care of You" expresses with the greatest simplicity the key to Aretha's own spiritual outlook — her belief that hope comes from trust, a sentiment found often in her own secular music and here given a final and fitting statement.
The spirit of this album transcends the notion of an old-fashioned church revival. It often sounds like a homecoming celebration for Aretha's return. There is pleasure in the audience at hearing her do things she hasn't done for them in years. And we frequently sense that she is not just leading them, but they are leading her. The sense of event reaches its zenith when Reverend Franklin allows that "... if you wanna know the truth, she hasn't ever left the church."
Strictly speaking, that is not true. Her music left a long time ago, although she took an awful lot with it. As she returns, she brings with her the weight of a decade of pop singing and offers us gospel music that is obviously and naturally her. And as with every other kind of music she has touched, she is never content to leave things as they were before she got there.
In the end, the sign of Aretha Franklin's artistry is that she always leaves her mark — first, on the music, then on us.