Aretha Franklin is a living legend, and I shouldn’t have to spend too long trying to convince you of it. Any opportunity to hear Franklin’s voice and music is a gift. Because of this though, there is an abundance of opportunities to do so. The universal appreciation of Franklin has encouraged a slew of greatest hits albums to be sent out to the masses. Franklin’s latest release, A Brand New Me: Aretha Franklin with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, manages to stand out from this swarm of albums, though. In this collection, Franklin’s classic material is reworked, and the backing music that once was is replaced with arrangements performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
This quality definitely sets A Brand New Me: Aretha Franklin with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra apart from similar releases, but it curiously adds a challenge in that it has to compete with the original versions of the songs on the album, on top of the competition it faces from other greatest hits releases. On the whole, it stacks up pretty well against the latter in regards to album composition. Most of the songs on the album are lesser-known hits, providing a good opportunity to become acquainted with a wider breadth of Franklin’s discography. The album does contain some of the more obvious entries like “Respect”, “Think”, and “A Natural Woman (You Make Me Feel Like)”, but it also contains many lesser-known numbers that newer or more casual Franklin fans might not have had any experience with before like “A Brand New Me”, “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)”, and “Oh Me Oh My (I’m a Fool for You Baby).”
This inclusion of lesser-known songs works to the albums advantage because it detracts from the album’s competition with the original tunes as many listeners won’t have any knowledge of the original to compare to. Furthermore, most of the included songs are fantastic. Franklin’s greatest hits are huge for a reason, but there isn’t usually a huge difference in quality between those and the other included songs. The only song that appears to be out of place is a cover of the Beatles’ divisive song, “Let It Be”, which sounds mawkish and campy to my ears.
For the most part, the songs are reimagined decently well, and while they’re unlikely to surpass the original versions by any measure, they serve as a fine alternative. “Oh Me Oh My (I’m s Fool for You Baby)”, for example, becomes 30 seconds longer in this edition, a welcome change that allows us to bask in the glorious ending and in Franklin’s spectacular vocal performance. Not all changes are so welcome though. “I Say a Little Prayer” on the other hand gained a promising intro, but ultimately disappoints due to its replacement of the original background vocals, vocals which were infinitely more expressive than the resulting ones.
It’s fitting that the album was released solely under Franklin’s name and not co-billed with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra as Franklin is indisputably the star of the collection. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra gives an adequate performance, but it does sound somewhat uninspired, almost as if no one wanted to get in Franklin’s way. The intent to keep the focus on her was right, but her performance is so commanding already; no self-imposed handicaps are needed to achieve this feat. After all, it just seems wrong to surround Franklin’s revelatory vocals with safe performances.
At the 1998 Grammys, Franklin, who had suffered years of criticism aimed at her aged voice, stood in for a sick Pavarotti by singing Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” and proved to all but the most stubborn elitist opera fans that, even far past her prime, her musicality and expressivity could not be bounded by genre or vocal degradation. At that moment, Franklin adapted her usual vocal techniques and style to fit a genre of music relatively unbeknownst to her. On this album, she sings, accompanied by an orchestra just as she was in 1998, but now it’s the orchestra’s turn to adapt to Franklin’s gift. Though this album has its fair share of flaws, it’s yet again another (welcome) reminder of the universality that Franklin possesses. In that sense, it’s a perfect tribute honoring such a boundless and essential artist.