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Aretha Franklin - Spirit in the Dark Music Album Reviews

Aretha Franklin - Spirit in the Dark Music Album Reviews

Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today we explore Aretha Franklin’s immensely personal 1970 album Spirit in the Dark.

Professionally speaking, Aretha Franklin had nothing left to prove. She’d shaken off a slow start in the music business after squandering years of her prime singing schlocky jazz on Columbia Records for a producer who once said, with a straight face, “My vision for Aretha had nothing to do with rhythm and blues.” She’d cemented her legend with “Respect,” a minor Otis Redding track that she elevated to a social-justice masterpiece. She’d established her voice as one of the 20th Century’s most distinctive instruments, right up there with Louis Armstrong’s trumpet.

On a personal level, it was another story. She had sung two years prior at the funeral of her family friend Martin Luther King Jr., and his assassination had left her shaken. She had recently separated from her husband and manager, Ted White, a volatile svengali who’d transitioned into the music business after a stint as a pimp. And she was already carrying another man’s child—her fourth, having become pregnant the first time at age 12, just two years after her own mother dropped dead of a heart attack.

Through this trauma came Spirit, a cathartic 1970 testimonial documenting the fusion of house-wrecking gospel and gut-wrenching soul that made Aretha Franklin Aretha Franklin. It is not her most famous record. It is not her top-selling record. What it is is her truest record, the one that best captures her essential ache—the pain of a black woman clamoring for freedom from the domineering men who suffocated her childhood, manipulated her career, mangled her personal life, and more broadly speaking oppressed her race and robbed her dignity. It’s an assertion of personhood, a monument to resilience in the face of pain. As if to make all this explicit she closes the album with a cover of B.B. King’s “Why I Sing the Blues,” though when it finally arrives the song is redundant. If you’ve been listening, you already know why.
Franklin grew up in Detroit playing piano and singing in church for her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, a powerful Baptist preacher so charismatic that nurses carried smelling salts to revive parishioners overcome by his word. The reverend’s sanctuary sat on Hastings Street, which at the time was Detroit’s black entertainment district, home to the bars where blues legend John Lee Hooker used to gig. The Franklin home was itself a kind of private club, a place for musicians like Nat Cole and Dinah Washington to relax after hours. Knowing he had a prodigy in the house, Franklin’s father used to wake her in the middle of the night and trot her out to perform for his tipsy guests.

The parties gave young Franklin an early lesson in the ways sacred and secular life commingled. At age 18, Franklin turned pro and embarked on a quest to integrate the passions and inflections—the blackness—of gospel music with the bourgeois politesse of the white pop charts. Columbia thought she could compete with Barbra Streisand. Franklin agreed, as did her new husband and manager.

Ted White was a man with a huge square head, a taste for custom suits, and a temper. Etta James once compared his relationship with Franklin to Ike Turner’s with Tina. White insisted that his young bride tour and record constantly; between 1961 and 1970, she released 19 studio albums. After years without a breakthrough on Columbia, White did manage to orchestrate Franklin’s 1966 move to the R&B-minded Atlantic Records, where she began her torrential creative streak with 1967’s I Never Loved a Man, but by then their relationship had frayed. In 1969, the two divorced. Restraining orders were filed. At one point, enraged that Sam Cooke’s brother Charles had visited Franklin at home, White pulled a gun and shot him in the crotch.

The outside world provided no safe haven. Violence rained all around her. King was murdered in Memphis in the spring of 1968. A few months later, Franklin performed the national anthem at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, only to see it engulfed in riots. A few months after that, almost 150 people were arrested and one police officer killed during a black-power congregation at her father’s Detroit church.

Released after this period of profound turmoil for her country, her career, her race, and her family, Spirit in the Dark stands as a statement of triumph for having come through, survived, gotten over. Franklin doesn’t make it look easy; she reminds us that it’s difficult. The LP’s very first cut, “Don’t Play That Song,” is all about trying and failing to forget old hurt. The grainy black-and-blue cover photo resembles nothing more than a bruise.

She recorded most of the album in Florida, and still today it sounds so steamy you have to crack a window. Most artists start their careers rough and eventually smooth out; Franklin went the other direction, rasping her voice, heading from slick cosmopolitan Detroit all the way down below the Mason-Dixon line. In an exquisite North-meets-South anecdote that became music-industry lore, at one point during the Spirit sessions, Franklin spilled a bag of pig’s feet in the lobby of Miami’s posh Fontainebleau hotel and refused to pick it up.

Her band hailed from across the region. On electric guitar: Duane Allman, the virtuoso longhair just a year away from fatally crashing his motorcycle back home in Georgia. On organ, bass, and drums: the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, a squad of Alabama ringers who’d cut their teeth with Wilson Pickett and Percy Sledge. Singing backup: Almeda Lattimore, Margaret Branch, and Franklin’s cousin Brenda Bryant, a trio that could mimic a Mississippi tent-revival choir. And then on piano: the 27-year-old soul queen herself.

It’s easy to forget—because her voice makes us forget—that Franklin has always been a formidable pianist. But she could hang with anybody. “Don’t Play That Song” opens with her at the keys, thumping out chords. The second track, “The Thrill Is Gone (From Yesterday’s Kiss),” begins exactly the same way. In all, seven of the album’s dozen songs start with the sound of her piano summoning a divine vibration, making her seem like both the bandleader and minister of her own personal tabernacle.

In contrast with Sam Cooke, who left faith music in the dust when he crossed over to pop, Franklin found ways to bring the genres together. Spirit in the Dark embodies the synthesis. “You and Me” is either an ode to monogamy or a devotional to the Lord. The ecstatic title track is either a paean to the holy ghost or a first-person account of a rafter-shaking orgasm. If you’re not paying attention, “Try Matty’s” sounds like it could be a joyful hymn. It’s a hymn alright—to a barbecue joint. The effect isn’t so much about ambiguity, making us guess which thing she really means. Aretha Franklin is more about duality, making us believe both things at the same time.

Three-and-a-half minutes into “The Thrill Is Gone,” as Franklin contemplates emancipation from a soured relationship, her choir kicks in to “thank God almighty, I’m free at last.” Suddenly the song is enlarged. And yet somehow exhuming MLK doesn’t make “Thrill” any less of a breakup song. If anything it becomes more of one, equating the emotional wreckage of failed romance with a nation’s collective grief over a national tragedy. Intimate loss can be all-encompassing, the song suggests, and all-encompassing loss can be acutely intimate.

The goodbyes don’t stop there. “Like the dew on the mountain,” Franklin sings, “like the foam way out on the sea, like the bubbles on the fountain—you’re gone forever from me.” That’s a little number called “One Way Ticket,” and it’s supposed to be one of the happy songs.

When decoding so much material about regret and liberation, it’s impossible not to read into Franklin’s personal life. And yet at a certain point, her music—like all music—is less about the specific content and more about the general feeling. It’s the relief we all get when finally moving on from something bad, the exhaustion and exaltation. It’s the masochism of being glad for the pain, because pain is how we know what we had was real. It’s the euphoria Franklin conveys in “Pullin’,” co-written by her sister Carolyn before she died of cancer at age 43. The words come off as an open letter to an ex-lover. The music comes off as a jamboree.

Again the tune opens with Franklin’s piano. Again she sings a gospel melody, climbing and dipping and wailing. Again she calls to her backup singers and they respond to her, and again, and again, and soon the tempo is racing so fast that the song lifts off its foundation to become a kind of divine dialogue we don’t so much listen to as a witness.

“Pulling,” she sings. “Harder. Higher. Harder. Higher. Pulling. Moving. Pulling. Harder! Pulling. Higher! Moving. Higher! Higher! Higher! Higher? Yeah. Yeah? Yeah. Go ahead! Higher!”

The woman will not quit. She’s broken free now, free of the earth and its chains. She’s ascending to heaven, pulling harder, lifting higher until she levitates in a state of transcendence, still singing, still wailing, crying out to God and man alike in a joyful noise borne of suffering. She continues like this until her formidable band, by now apparently crippled with fatigue, stumbles to a halt.

A hi-hat shimmers, a kick-drum thuds, and then in one of the great mic drops of all time, the diva Aretha Franklin, returned to earth now in a state of grace, turns to her sidemen—or maybe directly to us—and utters a single word: “Well?”

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