I’ll designate the following sentence a command: Do not let yourself read what I wrote about this album before you have heard it. This is crude; it is words, a mere facsimile, a type of repurposing. Even if it works, this will be a loving tribute, which is just a shadow of art. I’m giving you permission—actually a kick in the pants—if you haven’t listened to the album yet: stop reading this, close the browser, and let it carry you away.
Aretha Franklin was called home on August 16, 2018. What she did for music, for soul, for Detroit, for America, is still being eulogized, felt, and processed. It is likely that no single memorial, no 1,000-page biography, no slide show at the Grammy’s, will ever capture what she meant to the world. The remembrances will ease the mourning, but it seems to me that the best way to honor her memory is to keep the words brief and let the music be eternal.
I finished the first two decades of my life before I heard I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. I never felt Aretha’s voice in my house as a child like many of her fans whose parents played it on vinyl while the kids splayed out and drew in coloring books on carpeted parlor floors. But I didn’t get too far into adulthood, where hardened tastes might have stopped me from letting myself fall in love with something new. The first time I heard Aretha Franklin’s 1967 masterpiece, I was smack dab in the middle of my 21st year.
I was en route to Europe, technically already in Europe, in Iceland, for the up-to-then longest stint of my life away from home. Markers of growing older and the thrill of a taste of independence had me thinking deeply. I remember feeling, prior to listening, that more of my life lay ahead of me than behind, and also that that fact scared, soothed, and amused me at the same time. Late-adolescent anxieties, private ambitions, public presentations of irony, graphic tees and one-off haircuts, ruminations about financial realities and political bullshit and feeling boxed in – that was the version of me that walked into the record store in Reykjavik, determined to find a soundtrack for my trip.
Three hours before, I had rented the only available Automatic for an absurd price, hoping to assert some American freewill one last time before giving myself over to European train timetables. Most of the albums in the first section of the store bore titles in a language I could only identify as something Vikings probably spoke. In the back, I found a section labeled “Classic American.” I’m realizing now that to see a sign like that in a record store in a foreign country is to benefit from a unique kind of cultural legacy. There is an American flag on the moon and a shelf of American music in Reykjavik. Of course, the gravity of home drew me in. Overwhelmed and caught somewhere between adrenaline-fueled and jetlagged, I didn’t give much thought to the album selection. I sifted through for a minute or two, then came to the checkout with I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You.
After the rush of buying something with unfamiliar bills, I read the tracklist on the walk back to my rental. I sat inside and fiddled with the plastic wrap around the CD case for at least three minutes, at some point regretting that I’d bought anything at all, until finally I had the disc on my finger. The CD player ate the disc, and I backed out onto the street. From the silence came “Respect,” a song most people know even if they can’t name the singer.
The voice—Her Voice—slinked, and popped, and soared, and rolled, and fell out in a big heap from the factory-standard speakers of the Volkswagen Jetta, and it seemed to be living with me, speaking straight through fifty years of temporal haze. I felt warmth—as in, perceived actual warming, to the point of taking off a light jacket—and the power, the pain, and the emotional exposure lifted me up with the sensation of cosmic fellowship and raw humanness that sometimes accompanies the art of the most divine performers. It’s hard to find the metaphors, but people who have heard the album (all who are reading this far, I hope) have already felt them, so I don’t have to keep searching.
I drove around for an hour through clouds of gray mist and diffuse sunshine. More than once, passing pastel-colored houses and New Urbanist civic buildings, I smiled at the thought that a woman so black and an African American so female was getting playtime in a country of fair-skinned and mild-mannered Northern Europeans. Barack Obama summed it up: Aretha Franklin is American history. She is the confluence of every kind of music we can claim as ours. She channels the totality of the black experience in the United States better than any single musical artist before or since. But I’ll leave the reflections on the historical significance of Aretha Franklin to New Yorker think pieces and Kennedy Center Honors ceremonies. The first experience of listening to her cannot be so analytical simply because it is so overwhelming. I let the whole album play through twice.
I pulled into the hostel parking lot and turned the car off. I’d made up my mind: I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You was my favorite album.
Inside, I met Vassili, Andrea, and Mauro (Ukrainian, Italian, and Italian, respectively). Including me, that’s four men, aged 20 to 53, sharing a small space with four twin beds, each with a different reason for our trips to Iceland. Vassili had just signed the papers for divorce number three, and this was his gift to himself. Andrea had begged his dad for a week off, and although the family livelihood depended on his ability to take over the management of a hotel from his aging father, the wish was granted. Mauro had escaped from a vengeful ex-girlfriend (also his former muse in his professional pursuit of fashion photography) and needed some time to lie low in a far off place.
My car cost $400 a day (Iceland prices things this way).
“Hey guys. Nice to meet all of you. Wanna go to a waterfall tomorrow? We can split gas.”
The next morning, our motley crew packed into the Jetta with a day full of plans. I put the keys in the ignition and suddenly there was Aretha, too. Volume way up in the stratosphere, exactly where I had left it the day before. I quickly turned it down. Up to this point, my three new friends knew me as pretty unassuming and maybe bland. Now we were listening to my favorite album, and no one knew the words except for kind of me, and it was not what you might picture a young WASP from Texas listening to if your image of a Texan came from Dallas and the Dallas Cowboys.
The volume stayed low at first. Ten minutes into our four-hour drive, we had already exhausted several small talk topics, and we all felt the need to pace ourselves so that we never stumbled into awkward silence. I reached for the volume knob and brought the speakers up to their loudest level without distortion, just in time for “Soul Serenade.”
Only you can hear my soul serenade.
Then the swanky brass. Then the electric piano. It feels so sexy without any of the embarrassment that usually accompanies sexy things for pasty American people like me. (I doubt the Italians needed this kind of comforting distance from all things corporeal.) What Aretha does so perfectly and seemingly effortlessly is meld the body and soul in a way that enhances both and elevates them to another plane.
Only sheep and very hairy cows shared the countryside with us, and I think the others in the car could confirm: I swear the car came a little bit off the ground.
I sang along, because how can you not? My European road trip comrades laughed, but the kind of laugh that offers support, like, “You do you, man.” And I just felt so intensely grateful in that moment, through the two and a half minutes of that song, for what Aretha Franklin did in 1967 and for what it was helping me do in 2015. She put goodwill, heartbreak, and the charming kind of confidence on a record. She sang with the jaw-dropping, thermonuclear power of the essence of thoughts and feelings. I had spent two years at liberal arts school looking for categorical imperatives, assuming the posture of the radical skeptic, learning the sociological theories of injustice, tracking the processes that formed my young mind and its prejudices and weaknesses, all of which produced a pea soup fog of fear and self-doubt bordering on self-loathing. And here, on this album, was someone so wholly transcending those thought experiments. With her voice, Aretha Franklin embodied being alive and at the same time projected a higher quality, one not bound by the limits of the body. No wonder the church was the starting point and finish line of her journey; the music she lived is the music of revival and salvation.
The waterfall was cool. No, really, it was sublime. I don’t mean to downplay it. Iceland’s natural beauty leapt out every bit as much in real life as it did in the online travel ads. I said goodbye to my new friends and headed further East, to my longer-term destination of Spain. And all the clichés about a semester in Europe came true: the best food of my life, the strange fellowship with other nomadic university students, a host mom with a larger than life personality and some skeletons in the closet from the Francoist era.
In time, I came upon new questions about myself and the world, some of which brought me down from the enlightenment high I had experienced in Iceland. I wish I could say this album holds the secrets to unending euphoria, but no single thing can carry us like that. Mundanities re-enter, doubts come creeping back, as they always have and always will, because the majority of our lives are simply spent living. Ups have downs and also very boring middles, like waves in the ocean have whatever happens between waves.
Still, I’m hopeful. And she is one of the reasons. What feelings her voice brings: goosebumps and unconscious dancing and strength in trying times.
I might be the only person that hears “Iceland” and thinks of America’s greatest soul singer, or hears “Aretha Franklin” and thinks of empty roads on a cold island. Whenever I want to get transported back there again, I can save the money I would have to spend on a transatlantic flight. I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You is still with me, sitting on a shelf in my living room. And Aretha Franklin’s voice isn’t going quiet anytime soon.