It’s painful when a long-awaited album from a much-loved artist finally appears and is a disaster.
The pain is especially acute on Aretha Franklin’s new album, the Wal-Mart exclusive “A Woman Falling Out of Love.” Rumors swirled wildly last fall that she had pancreatic cancer — Rolling Stone even went to press with the news citing anonymous Franklin family members. So it’s a delight and huge relief to see a much trimmer Aretha — she lost about 85 pounds — back on the media circuit, looking healthier than she has in years and rescheduling concerts she postponed last year during her mystery illness (she plays Wolf Trap June 21).
What a sweet coda to the story if “Woman Falling” had been a solid, career-punctuating comeback on a par with her last good album, 1998’s “A Rose is Still a Rose.” Sadly, it’s her worst album in ages joining schlock like “Almighty Fire,” “You,” “Sweet Passion” and “Get it Right” as some of the least compelling junk in her vast discography.
Aside from the fact that she’s healthy and, based on last week’s TV promo appearances, in reasonably good voice, the good news is that the album is out at all. She was predicting an imminent release as far back as 2006 when she first mentioned the title to Billboard. It was so unfathomably delayed, it became almost a joke, sort of R&B’s answer to “Chinese Democracy,” the decade-in-the-making Guns n’ Roses album that finally saw release in 2008. Despite being active on the touring circuit, Franklin’s studio output ground nearly to a halt in the last 10 years. There was an uneven Christmas album in 2008. Her last “real” album was 2003’s “So Damn Happy.” It felt hit-and-miss at the time; it plays like a masterpiece, though, compared to “Woman Falling.”
Franklin has boasted in interviews this new project finally gives her creative control. She sees this as a major plus — sadly, she’s probably the only one. Her career, despite all the critical acclaim, has always been spotty. For every “Think,” “Freeway of Love” or “Chain of Fools,” there’ve been dozens of mediocre album tracks that fail to resonate. Because her early years at Atlantic were so smoldering and her voice has lasted, Franklin always managed a staggering level of acclaim considering how much junk there is on many of her records.
But left to her own devices, Franklin stumbles badly here churning out an inconsistent and all-over-the-map sonic mess that struggles to muster even one catchy hook or chorus. “This You Should Know” (which she both wrote and produced), “Put it Back Together Again,” “When 2 Become One” and first single “How Long I’ve Been Waiting” sink like quicksand in a soggy stew of momentum-sapping and dated-sounding R&B drivel.
Franklin, thankfully, sounds great. Her voice — while not quite the rafter raising feat of nature it was 30 years ago — still has a luster and sheen that’s delightful to hear. In a way, though, it makes this album doubly tragic — with better material, it’s obvious Franklin possesses the vocal wherewithal to have produced a home run.
The covers are hit and miss, but two of the three are the record’s high points. A sassy, bluesy cover of B.B. King’s “Sweet Sixteen” promises early hope but proves an isolated and fleeting moment. A duet with an oddly uncredited Ronald Isley on “The Way We Were” is sweeping and feels positively glorious compared to everything else. “A Summer Place,” the theme from the 1959 film of the same title, doesn’t fare nearly as well. An oddball outro dialogue with an uncredited male guest is embarrassing, cheesy and weird.
The insipd “New Day” sounds like a promising change of pace initially with its deep bassline but soon dissolves into trite lyrics (“you can make it if you try!”). “Faithful,” a duet with gospel’s Karen Clark-Sheard is so ludicrously oversung it makes Christina Aguilera sound reserved.
And despite a Billy Preston-caliber organ accompaniment courtesy of Darrell Houston, “His Eye is On the Sparrow” shows merely that Franklin’s son Eddie, singing lead here, inherited his mother’s range but not her interpretive finesse. She accompanies him on piano. It gives the album warmth, but since Aretha’s never recorded this standard herself, I’d have much rather heard her sing it.
The album closes with a bombastic rendition of “My Country Tis of Thee,” which Franklin sang at Obama’s inauguration. She battled the cold that day — here she battles an overwrought orchestration (her own arrangement) that never met a musical cliché (rumbling timpani!, gospel choir on caffeine!) that it didn’t try to work in.
Franklin said she cut tracks with Faith Hill, Shirley Caesar and several producers for this album but they’re all MIA. It’s impossible to know how much was recorded over the last five years for this album but considering what made the final cut, one shudders to imagine the outtakes. From the amateur photography and packaging to the dubious selections and bland production, this is a near-total disaster.