It was in the early dawn when I first felt the power of Aretha Franklin’s voice. It came trembling out from my fingertips and shaking through my knees. It washed over my sins like faith.
Her mighty vocals possessed such strength, her gospel seemed to lift the weight of God into my headphones. So I listened with complete absorption, on a westbound train to a day’s work, far from the comfort of my man’s loving arms.
Two of her albums in particular, 1968’s Aretha Now and 1970’s Spirit In the Dark, translate womanhood in a way that is neither sexualized, marginalized or inflated. Instead, these songs highlight the sensitive details in temporal activities; such as putting on makeup, going out to eat, or just feeling lonely at home.
The more I listened the more her tracks became saturated with my own experience as a young Black woman in love. I began to hear my own longings and loss in Aretha Franklin.
In just under 30 minutes, Aretha Now establishes a sound at the intersections of blues, gospel, and pop. The two leading singles from the album, “Think” and “Say A Little Prayer” illustrate this intersection the most.
“Think” opens the album with an attitude that declares her disillusionment towards the efforts of a lover. She howls with the rage of a woman scorned. She is not only claiming autonomy over her body, spirit, and mind, she is asserting an equal standing of power in the relationship, themes heavily suggested by lady blues singers. Her rallying cry for Freedom, is an anthem parallel to the liberating aspects of the Sexual Revolution throughout the 1960s.
Following “Think,” “Say A Little Prayer”” shifts the album’s entire sound with a softer tone, demonstrating how she can command her vocals from firm to tender vibrations. Her outward displays of frustration become intimate revelries of love. Although this track is a cover of a Dionne Warwick single, Aretha’s delivery–accompanied by the choral vocals of the Sweet Inspirations–illuminates the loyalty and faith found in love.
On Spirit In the Dark, Aretha displays a more mature expression of womanhood, one that juxtaposes the sunny and bright bulb of Aretha Now with darker shadows and blues. On “Don’t Play That Song” and “Spirit In the Dark,” Aretha summons this sultry magnetism with refined skill.
The piano melody on “Don’t Play That Song” holds as much gravity as her vocals. Instead of depicting the woman in heartbreak as weak, or succumbing to anguish, Aretha lifts above that misery and expels the forces that seek to drag her. She reclaims her power to grieve, instead of allowing it to inflict her own outlook.
The slow draw in “Spirit in the Dark” is sensual and strikes like a match. The sway of the beat combined with the organ begins like a religious hymn, but it’s low growl turns into a praise full of dance and rhythm. This track shakes and shimmies like rock and roll, and releases like an exhale.
Although the aforementioned songs are some of the most popular in her repertoire, my favorite (and underrated) picks from these albums are “Hello Sunshine” and “Try Matty’s.” On “Hello Sunshine,” Aretha welcomes the spring while her vocals reach for their ultimate might and grasp for the heavens. “Try Matty’s” is amazing for its portrait of a woman expressing her affection for her local lowdown juke joint.
Both Aretha Now and Spirit In the Dark reveal a multitude of love’s grace and complexities. From fury to frustration to grace and glory, these tracks illustrate all the faces of a love affair. The mastery of her vocals, combined with the fact that Aretha wrote many of these tracks herself, proves exactly why she’s the Queen of Soul. Aretha Franklin captures the freedom of the Black woman.