From the Heart
Aretha Franklin's From The Heart compiles sixteen love songs from the Queen of Soul's exhaustive, five-decades-deep discography. Ranging from the very sentimental to the very funky, it's too short to be a hits compilation, and too erratic for a proper seduction.
It's also largely rooted in the eighties, with several cuts culled from 1982's Jump to It and Get It Right. The former, her first entrance into the post-disco commercial pop sound, was also a celebration of her longevity, marking a transformation of sound and a renewed sense of vitality. This album's songs, namely "Love Me Right" and "I Got Your Love," embrace the funk, and Aretha sounds almost giddy as she playfully maneuvers within the new sound. The call-and-response of her big God-fearing voice and the Me Decade's signature slap-bass makes the listener want to saunter onto the dance floor and wrestle with a new formula herself.
But more songs come from Get It Right, almost universally derided as mediocre. Where Jump to It's lyrical content took a backseat to Aretha's sheer presence, here the schmaltzy balladry is front and center–and Aretha doesn't seem too enthused. She coasts indifferently above cheesy and dated melodies, occasionally breaking into over-the-top vocal theatrics that fail to make up for the otherwise tepid delivery. Save "Every Girl (Wants My Guy)," in which Aretha smartly "breaks it down" to a girlfriend over the phone, the work from this album is, indeed, phoned in.
From The Heartworks best when it reaches all across Aretha's vast career, from the very old to the most recent. The selections off of 1998's A Rose Is Still a Rose, notably the Lauryn Hill-produced title track, find Aretha embracing a more urban sound, and establish her as a voice not only of empowerment, but wisdom. Elsewhere, the jazz standard "Misty" sounds almost appropriate for the Porgy & Bess soundtrack, the music bluesy and timeless, her voice guttural and raw. It's a side of Aretha I feel unacquainted with, and a side worth exploring.
The most memorable cut is possibly the least fitting. In her 1964 version of "Unforgettable," the ingenue sings over a full orchestra; while her voice doesn't carry the power she would develop later in her career, it's certainly evidence of things to come. The young Franklin's greatness is inherent, and the huge, swelling instrumentation seems simply fitting, elevating but not enhancing.
See, Aretha doesn't need help. She just needs to be inspired. Beside her gospel-trained voice, Aretha's longevity stems from her ability to own a song. Much of her best work, including the anthemic "Respect," is penned by men. By the same token, much of her best work is about men. In wrenching these simple love songs from other singers and showing them how it's done, she reiterates two-fold her power. She embodies the feeling, establishes her independence, and earns our respect.
From The Heart, however, doesn't quite capture this. Largely uninspired and listless, much of this seems from the pocketbook or from the depths of a too-long recording contract. Only rarely does it sound, truly, from the heart.