Aretha Franklin has been straying beyond the conventional boundaries of soul for some time (most successfully on last year's awkward but powerful Young, Gifted and Black) but the new album is her biggest stylistic departure from R&B to date. The ominous spectre of Roberta Flack hovers over the enterprise, first in the use of the soul-jazz-pop fusion and narcoleptic tempo popularized in "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" and "Killing Me Softly"; secondly, in the use of Quincy Jones—who has often been Roberta's live arranger—as producer; and finally in the recording of one of the staples from the Flack live repertoire, "Somewhere" (from West Side Story), a song to which she gives a competent, uninspired reading.
Aretha continually reminds us that she can sing with poise, control and restraint. In fact, her version of Bobby Womack's "That's the Way I Feel About 'Cha" generates the quiet fire that I so often miss in Roberta Flack's work. But it's a Pyrrhic victory for Aretha. As tasteful as the lavish orchestrations are more often than not they strait-jacket her. On "Angel," a lovely, simple tune her sister Carolyn (author of "Ain't No Way") composed, the confinement is most evident. The song deals in simple sentiment—the kind that comes most naturally to Aretha's music—but her vocal performance drowns in the sea of an overpowering string arrangement. One longs for her former production team of Wexler, Dowd and Mardin, who, in their occasionally simplistic arranging style, always left her free to just sing the song, leaving her the space and room to do the one thing she so obviously does best.
To make matters worse, the original compositions don't measure up to the standards she has been setting for herself. She and Bernice Hart have concocted one wonderful if overly ambitious item, "Master of Eyes (The Deepness of Your Eyes)." It contained lines as provocative as, "People say that the eyes tell stories and reveal the soul/Do yours reflect the sameness of one, the unity to have and to hold." Atlantic released it as a single. Regretably, it stiffed. It has inexplicably been omitted from the album, while the flip side, a slick show-off version of the King Pleasure jazz standard, "Moody's Mood for Love," is included.
Whereas "Master" may have over-extended itself by cramming more ideas into one song than most people can get into five, the other Franklin originals are strangely underdeveloped, especially the uptempo ones. "The Other Side of the Sky" and "Sister From Texas" are anemic, though the latter has a certain whimsy and the nice line, "You know, pride'll kill ya." The album closes with a sultry big band blues that, while well-executed, seems irrelevant to me.
The ballads fare slightly better. "That's the Way I Feel About Cha" could have used some judicious editing but under the proper circumstances—late at night, bottle of Dewar's nearby—it gets under my skin. "Mister Spain" is loose and charming but drifts into a sort of gaucheness. And yet there is something striking here—Aretha hits a slightly sharp note that brought me back to the lines, "Don't do it, Mr. Spain don't do it/Don't stick another needle in your vein."
With those few words she transforms a dreary romantic ballad into something intensely personal and honest. Things like that make this, her least successful album in several years, still worth listening to. Hopefully next time out she will foresake middlebrow pretensions for a less self-conscious approach to her art.