Gospel music can move mountains. Yet its power does not derive solely from its expression of faith -- the gospel sound is an emotional outcry that reaches toward a heaven beyond its grasp. Gospel's frustrated jubilation is at the heart of the blues, R&B, soul, even rock 'n' roll. And as two new releases show, it can be a fatal mistake to forget its influence.
The career of Aretha Franklin -- daughter of Reverend C. L. Franklin (a respected figure within the gospel field) -- has been floundering ever since she abandoned her evangelical roots. Her last genuinely inspired work was released in 1972 -- "Amazing Grace," a two-record set of gospel songs recorded live with James Cleveland. Since then, her style has become rather listless, on a level with Natalie Cole or Dionne Warwick.
Even worse, on her current album, "Aretha" (Arista AL 9538), the Queen of Soul seems to be striving for a new role -- the Queen of Sap (Eydie Gorme, watch out). She's chiefly abetted by producer Chuck Jackson. He has contributed some vapid material ("Together Again," "United Together"); and his production of Otis Redding's "Can't Turn You Loose" is a startling desecration. A disco interpretation, the song parodies the inspiration of the original, transforming soul into lifeless formula.
Despite the dull production values, Franklin's vocal range still defies the laws of gravity. On her own "School Days," a Broadway musical production in disguise, her voice turns cartwheels as she fondly remembers nostalgic details of her past. She similarly saves the album's only redeeming cut -- a cover of the Doobie Brothers' "What a Fool Believes." The production is tidy and the musicians are familiar with the material; but it's Franklin's soulful voice that bestows a mature grace upon the interpretation, an adult perspective she hasn't captured since early-'70s masterpieces like "Spirit in the Dark" or "Young, Gifted and Black." "No wise man has the power," she sings with an assurance born of faith, and the message becomes the gospel truth.
Like Ray Charles, Franklin brought the apocalypse of gospel into pop, which was her salvation through the '60s. In the '70s, born-again fever struck. But she never took advantage of it, and her records have sounded increasingly moribund.
In contrast, Donna Summer (who also received her musical training in church) has returned in a way to her religious roots, as if seeking salvation for her bad-girl image.
Far removed from the multiple orgasms of her first hit, "Love to Love You Baby," Summer's songs on "The Wanderer" (Geffen GHS 2000) are eclectic. The title song takes Alice in Wonderland on a trip into outer space via a theme previously (and better) articulated by Dion ("The Wanderer") and Del Shannon ("Runaway"). Like "Hot Stuff," "Cold Love" features the typical sledgehammer attack of the heavy-metal behemoths -- but it succumbs too soon to the shoot-from-the-hip posturing of Pat Benatar. "Who Do You Think You're Foolin,'" a depletive example of Eurorock, never transcends its cliche: another superstar singing about the loneliness of being another superstar.
Although all the songs on the new album eventually dissolve into faceless pop, faith is restored when Summer returns to her gospel background on the final cut, "I Believe in Jesus." A sentimental singalong that charmingly recalls "Mary Had a Little Lamb," "Onward Christian Soldiers," and "Let It Be," the song contains the only honest moment on the album. After the hymn's fourth stanza ("And I'm going to heaven by and by 'cause I saved my soul from going to hell"), there's a pause, a silent prayer. Quickly and with humility, as if it were her last redemptive act, Summer whispers, "Sing it." And the choir roars right over her.