“Yo, gang! let’s kick the ballistics!” shouts Aretha Franklin in the opening moments of “Everyday People,” her spirited house-music remake of Sly Stone’s classic hippie anthem. The song, which is heard in regular and remixed versions on What You See Is What You Sweat, is one of the high points of an album that credits nine producers and production teams. Although the material runs a gamut of styles, Franklin infuses her personality so indelibly into every song that somehow it all holds together.
“I Dreamed a Dream,” a stentorian ballad from the Broadway musical Les Miserables, is turned into an obstacle course of vocal challenges, with Franklin tossing around saucy embellishments and shivering melismata and bearing down so convincingly on the line “Tigers tear your dreams” that you can almost feel the teeth and hear the rips. Two Burt Bacharach-Carole Bayer Sager ballads, “Ever Changing Times” (a duet with Michael McDonald) and “Someone Else’s Eyes,” about the changes and identity crises in relationships, are effectively milked for their last drops of pop-psychology truth.
On the funky side, there is “Mary Goes Round,” a grown-up “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” which sassily examines serial heartbreak. Two decent Franklin originals, the feisty “You Can’t Take Me for Granted” and the contemplative “What Did You Give,” find Franklin demanding respect with an intensity that has hardly diminished in more than two decades. The album’s biggest disappointment, “Doctor’s Orders,” is a trivial up-tempo duet with Luther Vandross that is too choppy to allow their voices to synchronize interestingly.
Because Franklin brings more spirit than usual to the record, What You See Is What You Sweat stands as one of her better albums. If the songs are uneven, they don’t prevent the Queen of Soul from exuberantly expressing the breadth of her musical personality, from regal pop-gospel diva to funky everyday person.