As Aretha Franklin prepares to release her first album in eight years, we look at the success of other comebacks.
Aretha Franklin releases new album tomorrow
Here's some news that deserves just a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Soul icon Aretha Franklin announced this week that, just three months after she said she had "resolved" a mystery illness - thought to be pancreatic cancer - she would be promoting her first new album in eight years. And this is no sketchy plan: the 69-year-old actually releases Aretha: Falling Out of Love tomorrow, via, ahem, the US supermarket chain Walmart. A month later, those of us who don't have the fortune to live near an outpost of the world's largest public corporation can download it from the usual sources.
The album features original songs written by her son Kecalf Franklin Cunningham, covers and, interestingly, the recording of Franklin's performance at Barack Obama's inauguration in 2009, when she sang the rousingly anthemic My Country, 'Tis of Thee.
One can only hope Falling Out of Love does rather better than Franklin's last album, So Damn Happy, which peaked at a slightly humiliating 33 in the US charts back in 2003. That time, the sound of the Queen of Soul submitting herself to ubiquitous modern R&B was, well, rather off-putting. And while it would be just a little extreme to suggest that classic singers should be hit with an age restriction - once past 60, perhaps, there should be no more talk of new albums and fresh directions - Franklin would do well to note that such comebacks are fraught with difficulty. Rarely do new albums from the stars of yesteryear genuinely add something different to their celebrated discographies.
Wanda Jackson, for example, was - in her day - to rockabilly and country what Franklin is to soul. Briefly dating none other than Elvis Presley, she enjoyed a string of hits in the 1960s, delighting both country and rockabilly fans with her fearsome delivery. Listen to the music from her golden period - wild, maverick and just a little sexy - and it made some kind of sense that she should employ The White Stripes' Jack White for her first album in five years. Unfortunately, though it was a decent effort, it was difficult to shake the distressing image of the 73-year-old suggestively caressing the microphone during her cover of Amy Winehouse's You Know I'm No Good. The Party Ain't Over limped to 58 in the American album charts earlier this year.
Perhaps Jackson was hoping for some of the stardust White had sprinkled on country music legend Loretta Lynn back in 2004. The album they worked on together, Van Lear Rose, was notable not just for its producer but the way in which it seemed to cement Lynn as an American icon - winning her Grammys and a whole legion of new fans. The difference between this and Jackson's effort was that Van Lear Rose had something fresh and new about it: for the first time in Lynn's career she had written all the songs herself. Layered behind White's raw guitar work, they sounded thrilling.
As did, of course, the man (in black) who was the first to open his sexagenarian mind to contemporary influences: Johnny Cash. His American Recordings series is, essentially, peerless. Like Lynn, it works because it offers new ways of listening to Cash's back catalogue rather than simply rehashing old ways of working. The success of the project with rock producer Rick Rubin prompted other veterans to ape it, with the inevitably patchy results. Neil Diamond's 12 Songs stripped down his pop sound in a similar fashion to Cash back in 2005, and although that record was a commercial success, it unfortunately encouraged him to make another - and 2008's Home Before Dark was awful. Meanwhile, Tom Jones has tried re-energising his career with the likes of indie's Cerys Matthews, Wyclef Jean and, er, Mousse T - but it took a surprising collection of gospel covers (last year's Praise and Blame) for him to hit the top of the charts again.
But then, the real reason such legends can't quite keep away from the coalface isn't just the potential money - although one imagines that helps. After all, if they signed the right deals at the time, the royalties should keep them in fine fettle for decades to come. These were some of the first pop stars, growing up in the public eye and wallowing in continued praise as record after classic record was released. The notion that they can't just flick a switch and summon up the glory days, when everything came to them so easily and when making albums was fun, must be maddening… and so the likes of Franklin, Jackson and the rest are continually searching for one last album that will cement their places in history.
By that rationale, we really hope the new Franklin record is up there with her very best - for her sake, if nothing else. But after that, maybe it's time she made peace with herself, put on one of her greatest hits albums, and left it at that.
* Ben East