Song of the Week: “Suzanne” by Aretha Franklin

by Douglas Cowie on 12 April 2019

Each Friday I pick a song–new, old, borrowed, blue–that’s been on my mind and in my ears, and write a short post about it.

This is “Suzanne” by Aretha Franklin:

I’d never heard this Aretha Franklin interpretation of one of Leonard Cohen’s most famous songs until Monday night when I was listening to my friend Kara’s radio show. At first, that tack piano opening sounds kind of weird and harpsichordy*, and I almost wonder whether that’s why the song wasn’t originally released back in 1973 on Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky), the album for which it was recorded. I mean, you forget about it almost entirely when Aretha starts singing, and the spare accompaniment is actually spare and beautiful, but maybe they just chose the wrong instrument to do it on. It falls back in the mix a bit more at 1:09 when the bass joins, and the song starts the groove that Aretha rides until her voice starts absolutely driving the song at the halfway mark, when she hits “Jesus was a sailor…” The arrangement has a super shape, from that opening, to the groove, to the peak of that groove, to its gentle fade into silence, “with his mind, with his mind, with his mind…” This recording is astonishing, even when you already know that Aretha Franklin is the greatest singer to have graced the planet (and I mean, everybody already knows that). You’re not going to spend any five minutes of your week any better than listening to this, so you might as well listen to it a few times in a row and extend that pleasure. My word.

*except actually, you can imagine it being the piano in a small church, when you listen to those chords tumble through the introduction, and you can almost hear the congregation shuffling from their butts on the pews onto their feet to start singing the hymn, and that is almost certainly the point, after all.

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