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How is it that a talent as towering and tremendous as Aretha Franklin—a woman who’s spent half a century making the case for herself as the best singer walking God’s Green Earth—can have her recorded reputation reduced to a handful of “greatest hits”? Blame the endless stream of uninspired anthologies and playlists that recycle, recompile, and reshuffle the same songs in to a slightly different order, strip-mining one of the greatest legacies in American art. What’s left behind are entire albums that continue to fade in to obscurity, even if they equal anything on the latest Ultimate Very Best Of The Queen Of Soul’s Essential Gold Anthology Of Her Greatest Hits Anniversary Collection. If you have any doubts, check out Spirit In The Dark, an album that delivers everything even the most casual Aretha fan would beg of her.
Spirit In The Dark is everything even the most casual Aretha fan would beg of her
Nowadays, Spirit In The Dark is condemned to long-tail purgatory, hidden behind a “SEE ALL” link that nobody clicks, and it’s become something of a secret handshake among her most fervent followers. So, to those of you who don’t know, we’ll let you in on it: Spirit In The Dark is a spectacular spotlight for everything we revere about Aretha Franklin as a singer, interpreter, songwriter, piano player, and band leader, and is, song-for-song, is every bit as great her greatest hits.
This is the barrel-strength distillation of soul music itself
The sound of Spirit In The Dark swings so hard toward Aretha’s gospel roots that it ends up sounding like the barrel-strength distillation of soul music itself. Between the holy-rolling funk of the players, the call-and-response vocal sparring, and Aretha’s pulpit-rattling piano work, the album’s sound is so deeply steeped in her father’s Baptist congregation that it resurrects all the straight-to-hell outrage that met Sam Cooke back in the ’50s, when he first dared to use his heavenly voice in praise of earthly desires. And it’s doesn’t get more outrageous than on Aretha’s shade-soaked take on “The Thrill Is Gone.” When her backup singers reduce Dr. King’s most aspirational refrain, “free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty I’m free at last!” to a carnal kiss-off, it still comes off as uncomfortably exhilarating as it must have when it was first recorded, barely a year after King’s assassination.
Aretha digs even deeper on “Pullin’,” a song that starts out like a lot of her classic hits—her piano worked in to a fervor and her voice dripping with take-no-mess attitude—but then goes somewhere higher and holier. A couple of minutes in, the song explodes in to a sweat-soaked revival meeting that gets just a little bit louder now, just a little bit softer now, and a little bit louder now until Aretha shuts the whole thing down with a single word dripping with so much royal swagger you can practically hear the smirk on her face.
“When The Battle Is Over” was originally cut by Delaney & Bonnie, but was really just a rewrite of an old gospel song, so it’s only proper that Aretha should breathe some holy spirit back in to it. Duane Allman adds backwoods Southern charm with some grimy slide guitar, but the song is all about Aretha’s attitude. When the Queen of Soul asks, “who will wear the crown?” it’s purely rhetorical.
Front to back, track for track, and holler for holler, Spirit In The Dark is a masterpiece
The album keeps cooking, track after track, as Aretha delivers some of the best songs she’s ever written and plows through a handful of old R&B, pop, and blues hits in ways that make the original versions irrelevant. And did you notice that we didn’t even mention the album’s biggest hit single? That’s because the songs you haven’t heard here are every bit as good, and many much better, than the ones you have. Hell, even the songs that were left off this album are mind-blowing: Check Aretha’s reworking of “My Way” that makes Sinatra sound asleep at the mic by comparison.
Truth is, front to back, track for track, and holler for holler, Spirit In The Dark is a masterpiece that acts as testimony to the injustice of art that gets subverted by a lazy adherence to the gospel of the greatest hit. Thankfully, in this everything-all-the-time digital world we live in, you’re just a click away from righting that wrong.
BONUS CUT: The most electrifying moment of Aretha Franklin’s legendary Live At The Fillmore set was undoubtedly the moment that Ray Charles, the man who first used Sunday morning’s sound to sing about Saturday night’s sin, joined his soul sister on stage for a rousing revival of “Spirit In The Dark.” Check it out: