Aretha Franklin is the Queen of Soul. This is undisputed. She's in the royal court of American gospel, too. But when it comes to jazz, blues, Broadway, movie themes, occasional pop (except for "Who's Zoomin' Who"), slow jams or opera, she's barely more than a pawn.
"A Woman Falling Out of Love" is Franklin's 38th album and her first regular solo set since 2003. It comes just months after Franklin, 69, canceled several concert dates and underwent a major surgery -- she still refuses to say what for -- before appearing in a taped message at this year's Grammys. She's back on the road shortly, including a May 19 show at the Chicago Theatre. That makes for a perfect opportunity here to hail a triumphant return, but this is an uneven collection.
That Franklin worked hard on this album is not in doubt. Perhaps too hard and too long. We've been hearing collaborators' names dropped for years. Those tracks produced by Gordon Chambers? Not here. Songs co-written with R. Kelly and Keisha Cole? Not here. Duets with Shirley Caesar and Faith Hill? Nope. A lot of editing took place -- without the guidance of her previous partners at Arista, her label of 23 years, which she left in 2003. She recently told Reuters her reasons for doing so: "Instead of having a lot of spoons in the soup, there would only be one spoon and that would be mine, of course. And I'm a pretty good cook." But maybe not a top chef.
On 2003's "So Damn Happy," her last album with Arista, Franklin made a stab at updating her music to fit the times, and it mostly worked. For "A Woman Falling Out of Love," however, she's in retreat. The songwriting is '70s, the production is '80s, the arrangements are pure '90s smooth jazz. Instead of a contemporary queen, we get an unsettling Eartha Kitt-enish cougar anthem ("How Long I've Waited," one of two songs here Franklin wrote and produced), clumsy jazz-club scat singing ("U Can't See Me"), an icy reading of "Theme From a Summer Place" and an overthought gospel rendition of "My Country 'Tis of Thee." In her spoken opening to "The Way We Were," a duet with Ron Isley, Franklin admits she wants "to take you back to the vista of the past." Just be advised: This past is much more "You" than "Lady Soul."
The album's two bright spots come late in the sequence, and they both feature the songwriting of the underappreciated Norman West, a gospel contemporary of Franklin's. On the empowering "New Day" (co-written with one of Franklin's sons, Kecalf Franklin Cunningham), Franklin sounds fresh and rejuvenated, backed by modern pop-gospel vocals and light electronic beats. Even better is West's "Put It Back Together Again," a classically styled R&B ballad in which Franklin nails it -- the one true home run of the album -- sounding soulful and real as she sings bittersweet lyrics with real feeling and emotional depth.
"A Woman Falling Out of Love" is out Tuesday but will be sold exclusively at Walmart until June 3.