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21/5/2018 Aretha Franklin: Spirit in the Dark Album Review | Pitchfork

Aretha Franklin

Spirit in the Dark


9.0

AT L A N T I C • 1970

by Nick Marino

/ POP /R&B

M AY 20 2018

,
Each Sunday Pitchfork takes an in depth look at a -
signi ficant album from the past, and any record not
in our archives is eligible Today we explore Aretha .

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21/5/2018 Aretha Franklin: Spirit in the Dark Album Review | Pitchfork


Franklin s immensely personal 1970 album Spirit in
the Dark .

P
rofessionally 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
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21/5/2018 Aretha Franklin: Spirit in the Dark Album Review | Pitchfork

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

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21/5/2018 Aretha Franklin: Spirit in the Dark Album Review | Pitchfork

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

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21/5/2018 Aretha Franklin: Spirit in the Dark Album Review | Pitchfork

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

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21/5/2018 Aretha Franklin: Spirit in the Dark Album Review | Pitchfork

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.

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21/5/2018 Aretha Franklin: Spirit in the Dark Album Review | Pitchfork

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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21/5/2018 Aretha Franklin: Spirit in the Dark Album Review | Pitchfork

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