Saturday, October 18, 2014

Aretha Franklin: I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967)


!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

The way to hear this album is either on vinyl or from (warning: illegal advice ahead) a high-bitrate needledrop. The official digital versions that exist simply don't, maybe can't capture the intensity of the drums or the intimacy of Aretha Franklin's voice at its upper register. This is the greatest singer in rock & roll at her unquestionable peak, and it deserves the full range of sound and unfaked warmth that simply can't be fully appreciated from a digital signal. I used to think such things were woo-woo nonsense, and still believe that a good mastering engineer could make I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You, this landmark of soul and pop music, this most emotionally powerful of all great albums, into a divine-sounding compact disc or MP3 album. But for now, take my word for it -- the hype over vinyl exists because of cases like this one. You won't regret seeking out this experience for yourself.

Never Loved was recorded over a span of just over a month in the first quarter of 1967 in New York, released barely a dozen days after it was completed. The Muscle Shoals band backing Franklin on these cuts, led by King Curtis on tenor sax, is illustrious and untouchable, but Franklin herself bears nearly all of the responsibility for their grace and majesty. Her simple but stunningly beautiful piano playing, bursting at the seams as it challenges the boundaries of the secular and sacred, is bested in its impact only by the singing voice that feels too large and important to have been emitted from a mere human. You know "Respect" damn well, and well you should, but as the first cut of a truly phenomenal album it sings out like a new song, fierce and unkempt, eclipsing Otis Redding's original and -- in retrospect -- eclipsing much of what the hell else was going on in 1967. This contained, exuberant, brilliant arrangement wraps around a nearly formless vocal that's just a pure expression of romantic frustration, anger, and -- this is rock & roll -- sly attitude.

Franklin explores those three vital implications of her vocal range throughout this series of frequently despairing love songs, at least as much as they wander into the more soul-traditional evocation of bottomless sorrow. That efficiency and eclecticism, that range, is why she stands apart from other rock and soul performers, why this is one of the top soul records of the '60s in a realm with Otis Blue and Night Beat. With that said, even in the moments of conventional heartbreak, Franklin defies the box that outsiders might place her in. There is nothing remotely ordinary in her version of the Ray Charles classic (penned by Henry Glover) "Drown in My Own Tears" -- it may as well just be viewed as a series of climaxes, a concept more typically seen in power pop or the baroque productions of Phil Spector, whereby all lines point to a dramatic peak. The exhilaration within this record's first three cuts is an act of incredible consistency despite each song standing out as an entirely separate entity, with its own aims and internal crises; the value in the album comes from how every cut presents another side of Franklin's angst and, perversely but perfectly, her utter confidence in her expression of same.

Atlantic Records was a creative hotbed in those days, and it could conceivably be argued that Never Loved was just another day in the life; it is, after all, mostly a covers record. Franklin's sole contributions as co-composer are the anguished but playful "Save Me," the sensual "Dr. Feelgood," the stirringly expressive (at her highest vocal register) "Baby Baby Baby," and "Don't Let Me Lose This Dream." All are outliers here, though one ignores the jazz-like, tense and plaintative "Don't Let Me Lose" at one's own risk. But does anyone argue that "Respect" ultimately belongs to anyone but Franklin? Would anyone in a thousand years ever be able to loosen her grasp upon the melody of Luther Dixon's "Soul Serenade"? The absolute heaven of the title cut and its b-side, the absolutely perfect (and audibly wounded) "Do Right Woman - Do Right Man," two of the best recordings of the century?

There is no letup in all this drama or closeness, to the extent that the LP single-handedly gives the lie to any equation of authenticity with self-composition. In every sense except the most strictly and meaninglessly technical, this is a singer-songwriter album. With the sole exception of the two very respectable Sam Cooke covers, these songs belong to Aretha Franklin and hence always they shall; this story, this cycle, this expression of pleasure and pain is all exclusively hers, and we should count our fortunes that we are able to witness it continually. It remains as fresh, powerful, invigorating, overwhelming as ever, nearly five decades on.

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