This album is about the one true soul music, the holy root of nearly all popular black American music in this century. It is also irrefutable proof — as if any were really needed — that when it comes to the music of the church, you can always go home again. Indeed, the New Bethel Baptist Church, in Detroit, where her father, the late Reverend C.L. Franklin, presided as pastor and where this double album was recorded last July, was Aretha Franklin's real musical birthplace; she cut her debut gospel sides for the Checker label live at New Bethel in 1956, when she was only fourteen years old.
Thirty-one years later, she returns a successful yet scarred woman, the veteran of an extraordinary but frustratingly uneven career as well as a turbulent personal life. Still, she remains undefeated in her faith. One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism is Aretha Franklin's second vinyl trip to the altar since she ascended to the throne as Queen of Soul, and like the first, 1972's aptly titled Amazing Grace, it is a striking musical documentary of uninhibited rapture and sobering confessional intensity — the sound of a woman at once reveling in the glory of her God-given talent and reflecting on a history of pain and uncertainty that earthly success couldn't salve. Ostensibly a record of celebration, One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism is weighed down by some very heavy crosses.
You can feel every one of them bearing down in her breathtaking reading of "The Lord's Prayer." The opening lines are like a song in themselves, a mini-aria in which Franklin pauses for extended melodic meditations, savoring those moments with slowly arcing wails and a breathy tremolo. She forsakes the fireworks for a heartier, more sage quality in her singing, sounding less like a radiant R&B angel than like a weary supplicant, thankful for all the good she's got and grateful for surviving the bad. Then, as the band and choir swell up behind her, she erupts into a soaring crescendo before suddenly dropping into a low, smoky alto for the amen. It is the album's most stirring moment and one of Aretha's best recorded performances in recent years. It is also a true prayer, with all of the hope it promises and the humbleness it requires.
Franklin, who produced One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, is almost too humble for her own good. "The Lord's Prayer" is one of only three solo vocal numbers on the album (the other two are the stately opening march, "Walk in the Light," and a beautiful voice-and-piano rendition of "Ave Maria"). But she has chosen her singing partners well, matching her own seasoned strengths with rafter raisers like Mavis Staples, Joe Ligon of the Mighty Clouds of Joy and the formidable Franklin Sisters trio, Erma, Carolyn and Brenda. Ligon, one of the legendary male voices in gospel music, digs into the slow hymn "I've Been in the Storm Too Long" with ravenous delight, whipping himself into an Otis Redding frenzy that forces Franklin to turn her own soul faucet on full blast as well. On the Edwin Hawkins hit "Oh Happy Day," Franklin and Staples fire up the song's spiritual joy with a playful, invigorating sensuality, and their attack on the galloping "We Need Power" suffers from no power shortage whatsoever as they throw lines back and forth like knockout punches.
Too much of that kind of holy rollin' is never enough, so it's a mystery that Franklin felt compelled to break the spell by fading the track out just as everybody is shooting into high gear. In fact, half of the ten musical performances on the album are edited in some way; "Higher Ground," a three-minute portion of an obviously much longer raveup, is inexplicably split into two parts. (The track is not split on the CD and the cassette, but it's still frustratingly short.) There is also the problematic inclusion of several extended spoken passages by a troupe of pulpit pounders, including the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Aretha's brother, the Reverend Cecil Franklin. Whereas on the song-oriented Amazing Grace she was eager to let the music carry the message, on this album she relies heavily — and unnecessarily — on oratory to heighten her offering.
But, as Jackson points out in his side-three sermon, "this is not a program. This is a worship service." In that context, his ten-minute tour de force is powerful medicine, a dramatic summoning up not only of religious spirit but of black power and pride, albeit salted with a little personal electioneering. His climactic litany — "It's mornin' time! From slave ship to championship, it's mornin' time! From the outhouse, to the statehouse, to the courthouse, to the White House, it's mornin' time!" — is alone almost worth the price of the album. Turn it up loud for full front-pew effect.
The title says it all, though; One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism is not about popularity contests. Although lacking the musical unity of Amazing Grace and suffering from choppy programming, this is still a compelling, occasionally transcendental expression of devotion. Given the uneasy compromise between her native R&B instincts and the formulaic pop on her secular records in recent years, One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism is the closest Franklin has come to no-nonsense, stripped-down soul in quite some time. It's certainly not hard to hear the joy and relief in her voice as she settles back into the familiar warmth of her favorite hymns. At the end of "Jesus Hears Every Prayer," Franklin recalls the great gospel stars who testified at the New Bethel in the old days — the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Swan Silvertones, the Clara Ward Singers. At its best, One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism is a fine testament to those memories.