Friday, August 24, 2018

On Aretha

How does the voice of a singer speak to you? What is it in their phrasing, their control of volume, the timbre of their voice, their register, that occasions something in you? I listen to Aretha and I hear a voice that seems to be striving for something, a voice that feels as if it is somehow reaching upwards - and in her phrasing, in her repetitions, the way she runs up to a particular stretch of melody, or tackles it in a different way from one chorus to the next, I get the sense of someone giving all her fervour to her music. These notes, when Aretha hits her stride and unleashes peals of melisma, and joyous near-shrieks that flirt with the top of her register, cause a kind of high inside me, an uplift, an astonishing sense of soaring that I don't feel to the same degree with any other vocalist.

Think about the beautiful run up the notes on "for me - there - is - no - one" in the bridge of I Say A Little Prayer, which she has a stab at twice and which only becomes more emotionally charged on the second stretch. It's not just that she's gliding up that rise, but she's putting emphasis on each one-syllable word, culminating in a lovely, breathy extended note on 'one' that makes you tingle. How do you explain that, the uniqueness in ability that enables her to dredge emotion, something real and powerful, from a little sequence of notes? In the Dionne Warwick version, there's nothing like that keening in the voice, and the song remains a pleasant piece of fluff. Aretha, coming from her tradition of gospel, sings the line with a fuck-it-all verve, a faith in her love that makes it come across with do-or-die candour. Yet she's having fun on the song, too - witness her two gorgeous verse-closing hums, or the rich and joyous hey-ey-ey! that takes us back into the chorus. It's those moments when something real and heartfelt peaks out, when Aretha lays it all out, that make my heart lift. 

I love the way Aretha sits on a song towards the upper reaches of her register, knowing that she is going to reach towards those top notes, swing into them fully. In the early song Skylark, she suddenly unleashes a peal of high notes, jumping up an octave - "Sky-y-y-y-y-la-ar-ark" - her voice a little pitchy, a touch pinched, something of a shout underlying it, but also rich and of such power and control that you actually shake to hear it. But most of the time, in her classic era, you sense her running up towards the top, gearing up for those leaps, and so much of the pleasure is in the build-up, and knowing with what enjoyment she will indulge her gift for melisma, in guessing what direction she will send the song swooping outwards. Again that sense of the gospel artist, using up her deep notes to get you onside, building up the song with incantatory, exhortatory lifts and falls - this is the way Aretha often half-speaks the ends of her phrases, giving them a lambent feeling that is so stirring somehow. In Dr Feelgood for instance you hear it in the phrase, "Filling me up with all of those pills": 'pills' is almost spoken, sort of slurred, which has a kind of rhetorical feel to it, making you lean in a bit; it's a way of gaining our confidence. By the end, when she runs through the phrase "got me a man named Dr Feelgood", giving it her trademark sincerity on top of a wicked bluesy pastiche, and opening up a snatch of melody that breathes a gust of air into the line, we're fully on side, and again sense some of that rapture. 

Throughout all of this, I'm seized as well by her piano playing, which seems to dialogue with her phrasing and sing in the same language, being punctuated by little bursts that change in volume and often seize up short with the same sense of finality. The piano gives warmth to her singing, and adds an element of call and response to her music that is somehow so touching, which feels thoughtful, like a gift. In her cover of Bridge Over Troubled Water, she starts off at the keyboard, and briefly rehearses - in a few simple touches that bring blackness, a bit of syncopation, some soul to this highly white song - its chief melody. The chords run on from each other, and she seems to pause and dwell here and there, or spring out a little jazzy run-through on occasion, making the song's tune somehow so much more warm and inviting, where before it was ethereal and serene. The keyboards lead her in, give us an entrance point, and articulate the mode that she will be singing in. Aretha's cover of the song is so beautiful because of her sheer humanity, imbuing the song's commonplaces with something authentic, which comes out in the astonishing runs of melisma she gives it, but also the way she stays late on the line, dawdling over "all your dreams are on their way", all the better to belt out "SEE HOW THEY SHINE" with the full wallop of her backing vocalists behind her. And when she reaches - when she gets to the highest point - giving all of her fire to "Oh.... and if you ever need a friend", hitting a high note on 'ever' that sounds like the clasp of a hand on your arm, you hear her performing that miracle again, of bringing truth out of nowhere, of seizing something so vital and felt, and imparting it, making sure it sticks. From there she eases into, "Look around, I'm sailing by your side", adding more words to the Paul Simon lyrics in her fervour, and beefing up the word 'sailing', giving it a few extra beats. This song, which was always beautiful, is transformed, and the listener is transformed, because an appeal has been made to us; we're an active listener, no longer a passive person over whom the music washes, but someone who has been called to, invited, recognised. 

These are the things that Aretha does to me, the ways she continues to pull me in and exert a power over me. On her album of unreleased songs and demos from her time at Atlantic, you get a few opportunities to hear her practising this art, which feels so unrehearsed, so god-given almost. On one of these, a demo for You're All I Need To Get By, you hear her finding her way around the song, working out how to give it some swing and meaning: it's so wonderful to hear her parsing the pattern of a song, the key to it; a way to open it up and exploit it for the handful of moments it can yield of authenticity, when she can pierce its shell. And, mostly you get her take on Sweet Bitter Love, badly recorded, just Aretha at the piano, giving a take of hypnotic reverence, of fire-power withheld at first and slowly building. The song's tune is so simple, but she finds new inroads, playing up the longing that its melody holds, the sense of betrayal in the lyrics, its questioning rhythms, and by the end of the song has done her customary thing of tearing through it somehow, especially on a chilling sing-shout of "Sweeeeet!" towards the end which slightly warps the recording. 

It's those moments that I treasure, these bits of honesty, rawness, anger, sexual passion that gleam through, which grab me, draw me in and pick me up. No-one else can do that. 

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