POP / Queen Aretha III: Aretha Franklin is back in the Top 10 for the first time since 1968. Is this a return to form, wonders Giles Smith, or nostalgia run wild?

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The Independent Online
This week, the legendary soul singer Aretha Franklin went directly into the singles chart at No 5 with a song called 'A Deeper Love'. Excluding two fancy duets from the 1980s - 'Sisters are Doing It for Themselves' with Eurythmics and 'I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)' with George Michael - this is, remarkably, Franklin's first British Top 10 single since 1968, when she released 'I Say a Little Prayer'. It's true that hits now don't have the currency they did then: the market for singles has long since gone soft, to the extent that currently you can guarantee a modest place on the network chart almost by virtue of a good sales response among your family and friends. But still, any kind of return to prominence for the Queen of Soul might be thought a cause for celebration: and would be more so if the record itself was less grim.

'A Deeper Love' is written and produced by Robert Clivilles and David Cole, an American production duo who, under the name C&C Music Factory, have been responsible over the last three years for a series of flyweight dance records in which pop approximates more closely to computer software than was ever thought possible. They had their own hit with 'A Deeper Love' in 1992. Here, they give us a CD version containing four different mixes of the song and then a second CD containing five more, which could make you think that the song was infinitely malleable in some sort of marvellously arty way, but which could also make you wonder why they never got round to finishing it.

The arrangement gestures abstractly at the texture of Franklin's great recordings from the Sixties and Seventies - a spot of organ, some call-and-response backing vocals. And Franklin gets fired up somehow and pulls off, as you would expect, a flaring vocal, thick with growls and drawls. Even so, the context runs it all into line, renders it one-dimensional, and the effect of the whole is strangely unarresting, even by the foreshortened imaginative standards of dance music.

But one duff song may be the least of Franklin's problems. 'Deeper Love' arrives ahead of a compilation album, Greatest Hits (1980-1994). These have not been, by any estimation, Franklin's golden years, yet this is what her record company chooses to sell us right now. On the cover Franklin sits wearing a biker's leather jacket and looks out at us from under a wig of long black curls. You ask yourself where this image comes from, what it chimes in with. And then you realise, slowly and horribly: in 1994, the Queen of Soul is being offered to us as Cher.

Franklin's is an uncomfortable position. More than any group, more than any of the artists who can write their own material and thus are in a position to cut their own path, the singer is at the mercy of providers and, by extension, at the mercy of the record business. And it is clear that, for nearly a decade and a half now, the business has had in its hands one of the greatest singers of our time and not known what on earth to do with her.

Traditionally, Franklin's career is talked about in terms of two distinct phases: there was her uneasy period with Columbia Records, from 1960 to 1966, where, under the guidance of Mitch Miller, she tried out unhappily as a singer of standards. Then there were the Atlantic years where she teamed up with Jerry Wexler and pounded out the big ones: 'I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)', 'Do Right Woman - Do Right Man', '(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman'. The new collection invites us to consider a third period - the Arista days, under Clive Davis.

Davis signed Franklin to Arista in 1980 when her career was already dwindling. In 1979, she was in cabaret at a restaurant in Lake Tahoe and maybe ruefully reflecting that singing above the chink and clatter of dining rooms was, roughly, where she came in (you can hear her steam through a selection of supper-club favourites in an actual supper club on Yeah]]], a live recording produced by Clyde Otis in 1965).

Davis took her in close under his wing. He gets an executive producer credit on all her albums. (Indeed, the night before the Grammy Awards in 1992, Davis threw a huge dinner-party for his record company at the Plaza Hotel, New York, at which he arrived with an impassive Franklin on his arm. Excited whispers circulated that Franklin had agreed to get up and sing after dinner. As it turned out, somewhere between the starter and the main course, she slipped out of the building, leaving us to enjoy performances by Lisa Stansfield and Kenny G. It was, everyone agreed afterwards, the greatest show they had never seen.)

Davis has chosen Franklin's songs, but he has done so in an era in which sounds, not songs, have been the prime consideration. So the satisfying moments gathered on the new collection are thin on the ground: 'What a Fool Believes', produced by Arif Mardin; 'Get It Right', produced by Luther Vandross; the thumping 'Freeway of Love' produced by Narada Michael Walden. After that, you're right down to the bland and the nondescript - 'Willing to Forgive', 'Honey', 'United Together' - Franklin's voice straining for warmth in the synthetic surroundings.

Yet, over the same period, public fondness for Franklin has, if anything, increased. She was inducted into the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. She came out for President Clinton at the inaugural pop festival he staged at the White House (admittedly stirring a controversy by wearing what looked like an entire herd of priceless animals gathered into a coat). Within the last five years alone, she has been the subject of two American television tributes, including the star-riddled show filmed in New York last May in which even Robert de Niro stepped up and said that sure, he'd never actually met Aretha, but wow, her influence etc etc.

Clearly there has always been an inherent problem with legends - they are for another time than the present. But Franklin's would have to be a pop predicament peculiar to our time - one in which respect grows even as genuine success falls behind.

'Aretha Franklin, Greatest Hits 1980-1994' is released by Arista on 7 March

(Photograph omitted)