1970, Music

Spirit in the Dark (1970) by Aretha Franklin

This is particularly bluesy Aretha record, at least based on my very slight knowledge of her catalogue. Though it produced two hits, it infamously did relatively poorly as an album and, listening to it, it’s fairly easy to see why.

When we think of Aretha we think of her as a singer first. Of course she also wrote some of her material. This record apparently contains the largest share of her own compositions of any of her Atlantic records (or, perhaps, any of her records). That makes it more personal, sure. It might also account for the lack of outright pop soul material. (That’s just a guess). The covers run a slightly broader gamut, but mostly focus on the blues to a greater degree than I was expecting. In fact, a couple of them are all out blues songs, rather than soul interpretations of blues songs.

The arrangements are relatively lean. One of the things I appreciate about Aretha is that she rarely feels the need to drown things in overdubs and orchestration. Maybe that’s because she’s such a forceful singer but, regardless, it’s a plus. This record has plenty of instrumentation, but it’s relatively bare bones for the genre. And, if memory serves, it’s relatively bare bones for her at Atlantic. (Going on memory there.) Take the guitar part on “When the Battle Is Over”, for example, which is way dirtier than I was expecting.

The sound is good: her voice is front and centre, her piano is high enough in the mix (not always the case, from memory) and it doesn’t sound tied to a particular time.

The biggest drawback is that it’s just not that catchy in comparison to some earlier albums. This is not a criticism. But I do feel like, to fully appreciate what some people believe is her most overlooked and personal record, I’d have to listen to it a few more times. Maybe it really is a forgotten masterpiece but I haven’t listened to it enough to get that. Instead, I hear a particularly bluesy soul record, one that is much more committed to the blues than to pop, which is a good thing.

But it hasn’t quite grabbed me.


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