The hype on the new Aretha Franklin album would have us believe that this is her best work since the Sixties, when a string of now-classic albums with Jerry Wexler and Arif Mardin established her as the definitive female soul singer. Even the press bio that accompanied Who's Zoomin' Who? claims the record has been "hailed by critics as one of the true landmark albums of [Franklin's] career." A critic not consulted in this prerelease poll is naturally a little skeptical, especially since Aretha's career was already resurrected once recently under the tender loving care of Luther Vandross. On Jump to It, Vandross recaptured the spirit of Aretha's early work – its vibrancy, assurance and emotional impact – by keeping things simple (but quite sophisticated) and finding a common ground of instinct and inspiration. But that ground didn't prove too solid when it came to a follow-up collaboration: Get It Right never really clicked, and without a jolting single like "Jump to It," both singer and producer seemed to be going through their professional motions.
Narada Michael Walden, who's had a respectable, wide-ranging but largely uneventful career as a performer and producer, would hardly seem the man to snap Aretha Franklin into high gear again. His eclectic approach on Zoomin', where every track has an entirely different feel, sounds unsure and unsettled at first, especially after Vandross' supremely confident, uniformly highgloss productions. And one's hopes aren't exactly raised by the album's first single, "Freeway of Love," an overcalculated pop song that tries very hard for funky abandon and ends up with a lot more flash than feeling. Aretha is clearly having fun here – she zings the innuendoes and cruises, top down, through the sexual metaphor of her pink Cadillac ("Take a ride in my machine"). But "Freeway" never delivers on its promise of an "extended throwdown." Like that car, it's attention-getting but kinda tacky.
With "Freeway" as the opening cut, Who's Zoomin' Who? could be headed for a dead end, but Walden and Franklin turn things around again and again – this is an album full of unexpected moves – and from nearly every angle, Aretha is at the top of her form. Two of the most satisfying songs were produced by Franklin herself, with a control and clarity that should make Wexler and Mardin proud. "Sweet Bitter Love," which Aretha first recorded twenty years ago for Columbia, has a gospellike intensity here. Against a subtly sketched-in track, Franklin's vocals are measured and deliberate at the start but throbbing with barely contained emotion. As Aretha lets loose, she fills every line with pain and regret, stretching or stuttering out words, shouting, then hushing down her feelings. What's revealed here is nothing compared to what's held back, and this aching restraint gives "Sweet Bitter Love" more impact in five minutes than most people get into a whole album. Franklin's other production, "Integrity" (which she also wrote), strikes a brighter note with a sassy update on the theme of "Respect." Still looking for a do-right man, Aretha isn't afraid to taunt him with a quick lecture on current "ladies' priorities" and then ask, "Do I make you feel insecure?" Cool and sly, her voice burnished to a warm, grainy rasp, Aretha breezes through this witty love song (and her sparkling, neoclassic arrangement) in total control.
And that's Franklin's stance throughout the bulk of Who's Zoomin' Who?: even in love, she's a woman of independence, strength and savvy. The most obvious statement of this attitude is the Dave Stewart-produced "Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves," a duet with Annie Lennox already featured on the new Eurythmics album. If the message here is a bit simplistic and the electronics strident, almost jarring next to Walden's more nuanced productions, Lennox and Franklin are a heady combination, and they turn "Sisters" into a rock and soul celebration. Two of the album's most appealing songs take this new attitude in less rhetorical directions. "Another Night," the snappiest dance track, crackles with the hard-won confidence of a woman determined to put old love behind her and go on alone. Aretha knows she's protesting too much – there's an anguished, angry catch in her voice when she sings, "I won't be lonely.... I'm gonna make it" – but her joyous defiance wins out in the end, and she struts into the night wailing. Still on the dance floor, Franklin slips into the title cut with a jivey spunk, hitting on a guy before he hits on her. Calling herself "an experienced girl/Nobody's fool," Aretha turns the tables with relish. You can see her bopping circles around her catch, teasing him until he's hooked, and Walden orchestrates this modern mating dance as a lightly choppy glide.
Aretha is even more rapacious on the album's other I'm-gonna-make-you-mine song, a comic Caribbean concoction titled "Ain't Nobody Ever Loved You" that owes more to Lionel Richie's "All Night Long (All Night)" than to any island influence. After this tropical throwaway – the closest thing to filler – two other tracks flesh out the album: "Push," a nod to rock crossover that features an okay duet with Peter Wolf (who ever decided this man was a paragon of white soul?) and a searing guitar solo by Carlos Santana; and "Until You Say You Love Me," an all-out hurt-by-love song set to a shimmering grind track (which is almost Princely) and sung with husky intimacy.
Though Who's Zoomin' Who? never quite comes together as an album, Walden's ambitious eclecticism works cut by cut with few exceptions, and astonishingly, the hype is nearly justified: this is some of Aretha Franklin's best work since the Sixties. Obviously, the example of Tina Turner acted as goad and inspiration, and the edge of rich brashness in Aretha's performances seems sparked by Turner's electric drive. Surely, Franklin deserves the sort of broad recognition (i.e., major pop success) that Turner has finally gotten, but Zoomin' seems so anxious to cover all the angles that it scatters Aretha's energies rather than focusing them. Still, Franklin sweeps through this stylistic hodgepodge with more fire and verve than she's displayed in years. Even if this isn't her crossover breakthrough, there's enough vocal brilliance here to stun any listener within range.