In the final decades of her career, Aretha Franklin released a modest amount of music compared to her early years. Gone were the days of releasing an album or two every year. So Damn Happy is one of Aretha’s final bodies of work, despite being released 15 years before her passing in 2003. Though 3 albums followed, only one contained original material. So Damn Happy became Aretha’s last album of all-original material, and it contains some serious gems.
Around So Damn Happy, Aretha’s releases were more spaced out more than any other time in her career. Its follow ups released in 2008, 2011, and 2014. There was space between prior releases too. A Rose Is Still A Rose released in 1998. Before Rose she released What You See Is What You Sweat in 1991 and Through The Storm in 1989. Because of the timing of surrounding releases So Damn Happy occupies its own place in Aretha’s discography. So Damn Happy is unlike any other Aretha album sonically, vocally, even topically. It’s the first Aretha album in years that simply is. There’s no gimmick and no trend. So Damn Happy is a set of smooth, bright tunes souled up and sang down by the Queen of Soul.
The acoustic guitar and organ punches introduce the album’s opening cut/lead single, “The Only Thing Missin’”. It perfectly sets the tone for So Damn Happy. This is a recharged and upbeat Aretha Franklin. She spends much of So Damn Happy radiating the strongest rays of sunshine. “The Only Thing Missin’” is brilliant. Aretha uplifts as she as she makes the comforting declaration “tell me what do you do, when love is gone? You count your blessings and you move on.” It’s a wild mentality from a woman who can sing heartbreak like no other, but there’s no questioning her authenticity. The easy-going midtempo rises like the morning sun, only to glide out gently as Aretha closes out the track flexing her immaculate scatting skills.
She’s in a similar headspace throughout, and the follow up “Wonderful” lives up to its name. It’s so good, that Aretha earned Grammy Award number 16 for the track. It’s souled up smooth jazz. Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis bring a similar smoothness to their contribution, “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool“. It’s a little more R&B, but it packs a rousing, punchy hook and still maintains the chill vibe of So Damn Happy.
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Mary J. Blige’s name appears twice on So Damn Happy. Each time she’s pulling triple duty as co-writer, arranger, and background vocalist. “Holdin’ On’” and “No Matter What” were intended for Mary’s album Love & Life (released a few weeks earlier). Rumor has it that Mary and Sean Diddy Combs clashed while working on the project. Mary decided to hold onto some of the material. What results are two stellar tracks where Mary’s wall of sound reinforce Aretha’s testimonies. The tone of Mary’s Love & Life was also largely bright and upbeat, so the lyrics fit So Damn Happy like a glove. If Mary’s background vocals don’t clearly illustrate her involvement, it’s not clear enough Mary’s contributions, there’s even a line about “hateration” (a nod to Mary’s massive “Family Affair”) on “No Matter What” sure does.
The first half of the album undoubtedly hits harder than second. The slight diversity and deviation throw the second half. Aretha’s own compositions add some strong punch in the middle, especially the title track “So Damn Happy”. It’s progression and arrangement are reminiscent of Aretha’s conquering of Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” from 1968. With Aretha at the piano for the track, it elevates things to a level only Aretha and a piano can achieve. Afterwards, Burt Bacharach’s “Falling Out Of Love” is a slow, melancholy moment, but it builds into a soaring show out, key change included. “Good News” on the other hand is something unique. It’s a contemporary gospel track that is the farthest cry from Amazing Grace. Yet, there’s something to be said for Aretha mixing in a track about going to church to hear the good word. The gospel was always with her.
So Damn Happy won’t be remembered as one Aretha Franklin’s groundbreaking, earth-shattering albums. Yet, it’s worth a listen or a few. It’s a topical bright spot in her shining discography, with great singing and upbeat material.