I woke up at the crack of dawn on May 3, 2011. I drove from my West Philly apartment down to South Philly’s Wal Mart and basically opened the place up. It took about 20 minutes for a staff member to retrieve a copy from the back because they weren’t even stocked yet. I was 2 days shy of my 21st birthday and this was the ultimate birthday present: Aretha Franklin’s long-awaited new album Aretha: A Woman Falling Out Of Love. It was the first new Aretha record landing near my birthday since I got my first Aretha album (the recently released A Rose Is Still A Rose) for my 8th birthday in 1998. I spent my drive back to campus (and my 9:30 class) getting my first taste of Aretha’s long-awaited Aretha: A Woman Falling Out Of Love.
After a few listens, the album didn’t exactly stick. It was all over the place. On top of that, a production issue caused a glitch on the cd with one song, making that track unlistenable. Wal Mart had to release the song as a free download in an attempt to remedy the problem. The reviews ran the gamut. One reviewer expressed gratitude just to hear Aretha’s voice on record again after her recent and mysterious surgery/illness. Another was less kind, saying the album “(appeared) to indulge every wrong musical instinct Franklin has ever had” and was “a muddy-sounding hot mess of an album.” The album barely charted and yielded no hits. After nearly 6 years, Aretha delivered a dud.
Aretha: A Woman Falling Out Of Love is one of the most difficult Aretha albums for me to put words together about. It became her penultimate release, and final Aretha Franklin album containing original material. The album was delayed for years, and ranks among her weakest bodies of work. As with all her albums though, it does contain a few strong tracks that hint at what could have been.
Aretha first teased this project in the spring of 2005. At a show in Tennessee she announced that her new LP Aretha: A Woman In Love, would arrive in June. “Let me tell you, when it’s good, it’s good,” Aretha mused to the audience, referring to the title. After announcing the album she performed a new song she’d written for the album called “I Adore You and I Abhor You.”
“I Adore You and I Abhor You” became a mainstay in her setlist until 2011, but was abruptly excluded from the album. At some point along the line she began introducing the song with an updated album title: Aretha: A Woman Falling Out Of Love. She would emphasize the “out” when she said the title. Here’s audio I recorded of the song at a 2010 show in Philadelphia:
For all the waiting and teasing, the album’s final content and sequencing don’t reflect either title. There are love songs and there are heartbreak records but they’re thrown together haphazardly, muddying the good and emphasizing the bad.
On the good side, Aretha delivers some stellar scatting as she glides over the dismissive smooth jazz of “U Can’t See Me.” She details the ebbs and flows of an on-again-off-again relationship on the reflective and melodically captivating “Put It Back Together Again.” And she’s brightly optimistic on “New Day,” which would have made a fantastic opening cut.
But Aretha’s really at her best when she goes to church. Alongside the divine Karen Clark-Sheard, Aretha takes “Faithful” to astronomical heights. It’s easily the best cut on the album. Anyone who knows anything about Aretha’s gospel performances won’t be surprised by that. It’s more than just the fact that this is a gospel track, though. Kudos are more than due to Richard Smallwood for crafting the perfect gospel record for Aretha in this era. After a life lived and many storms weathered, what could better encapsulate Aretha other than “faithful”? It’s the one thing Aretha carried with her to her final days: her faith.
She also digs her heels into a sizzling cover of BB King’s “Sweet Sixteen.” It’s the first blues song Aretha’s recorded in decades, and it’s long overdue. Some of her best records are blues records (“I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Loved You)” and “Dr. Feelgood”). She freestyles some of the lyrics to truly make it her own, dedicating a verse to her brother Vaughn who served in Korea and Vietnam. As the song builds she vocally delivers some of her best runs and leaves nothing in her wake.
For the good though, there’s also the terrible. Her covers on “A Summer Place” and “The Way We Were” are a sequenced one-two punch of bad and worse. “A Summer Place” maintains the styling of Percy Faith’s original and classic instrumental, but it’s out of place amidst this mix of adult contemporary R&B and jazz and the melisma is a bit dizzying. Kudos to Billy Dee Williams for his spoken-word contribution, though.
Nothing is worse than the reading of “The Way We Were” featuring Ron Isley. The reverb is at its max, the melisma is at a point of no return, and to call it overly-schmaltzy would be disrespectful to overly-schmaltzy records. Nobody wants or needs to hear these two sing this song with this arrangement. It’s hard to listen to a decade later, even for this die-hard Aretha appreciator. It’s the antithesis of the pair’s brilliant and sentimental 2010 cover of Carole King’s “You’ve Got A Friend.”
Then there’s the perplexing inclusion of her son Eddie singing a 6-minute rendition of “His Eye Is On The Sparrow.” Aretha accompanies him on the piano (and can be heard responding in a few spots if you listen closely). He has a great voice. But I found myself wondering why I was hearing him for 6 minutes in the middle of an album I’ve been waiting 6 years to hear? There’s no reason for this to be here.
The album closes with a bonus: Aretha’s “preferred” version of her show-stopping “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee” from the 2009 inauguration ceremony of President Barack Obama. It’s a fitting close to this perplexing and oft-disappointing body of work from The Queen of Soul. (This version is not currently streaming, but can be previewed and purchased digitally on Amazon)
There’s also a treasure trove of unreleased material that never made the album and has never been released. There’s the title track “A Woman Falling Out Of Love,” which Aretha said is a duet with Faith Hill. Shirley Caesar appeared on a radio program not long after Aretha’s passing and debuted a record that the two of them recorded entitled “Friends.” There is no recording of the broadcast so the song has never been replayed. But according to Pastor Caesar, the song was written by Ray Charles and originally intended as a duet between Aretha and Ray. Yolanda Adams’ “Open Your Heart,” and “Better Than Gold” were both performed live under the banner of being part of the LP but excluded from the final product. Aretha also name-dropped a song titled “Tell Me You Love Me Again” And of course there was the oft-performed “I Adore You And I Abhor You.”
Aretha: A Woman Falling Out Of Love remains understandably overlooked in the Aretha Franklin canon. It was only physically available at WalMart and while it’s currently available to purchase through their website, it’s likely just remaining stock from a decade ago. It was digitally available to purchase for a period of time, but has since been removed and has never been licensed for streaming services. Seek it out at your own convenience. One final note: while working on this retrospective, I edited and resequenced the LP. What I found was that by editing the tracklist it created a more cohesive and digestible listening experience. The re-organized track list is below, for those interested. It’s an easier, softer way to take in this LP.
- New Day
- Sweet Sixteen
- How Long I’ve Waited
- When 2 Become One
- U Can’t See Me
- This You Should Know
- Faithful (with Karen Clark Sheard)
- Put It Back Together Again
- My Country ‘Tis Of Thee (Bonus Track)
Aretha: A Woman Falling Out Of Love is available for purchase though WalMart.