Thank You

Diana Ross

Decca Records, 2021

http://www.dianaross.de

REVIEW BY: Peter Piatkowski

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 11/17/2021

Veteran pop legend Diana Ross waited a long time before releasing her latest studio LP. It’s been 15 years since her last album, I Love You, which was a collection of covers. In the last decade and a half, Ross wasn’t retired. Despite not recording new music, she continued to tour, travelling the world and performing at sold-out venues. Though she wasn’t scoring pop hits on the Billboard charts, Ross was still an in-demand concert performer. As her fellow icons like Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, and Dolly Parton were putting out new music, Ross was seemingly preoccupied with her concert career.

When her twenty-fifth album, Thank You, was announced, it came with some excitement, given who were named as producers on the effort: Jack Antonoff, Jimmy Naples, Amy Wadge, Tayla Parx, and Spike Stent were listed as collaborators, working with Ross on her new music. Antonoff is the indie rock hero who crafted sounds for Taylor Swift, Lorde, Lana Del Rey, and St. Vincent. When Antonoff was linked with Ross’ new project, it would be understandable if fans assumed this project would be similar to the late-in-career partnerships of Jack White and Loretta Lynn, Rick Rubin, and Johnny Cash or Mavis Staples and Jeff Tweedy. If there was any artist that warranted a rejuvenation of her sound, it’s Ross. Since the mid 1980s, Ross’ recording career has been mired with saccharine A/C and MOR pop. A shame because when paired with energetic and exciting producers like CHIC or Ashford & Simpson, she was capable of putting out some fantastic music.

Unfortunately, a lot of Thank You hews closer to Ross’ comfort zone. Though the album could have been a wonderful opportunity to reignite Ross’ career, it’s yet another instance of a supremely talented and gifted performer who is presented with good-to-okay material. None of Thank You is bad – and there are some moments that hint at a brilliance, but overall, this release is a safe return.

The opening track of the album starts off things well with the bright and nostalgic title track which engages with Ross’ Motown past. The piano intro sounds like a Motown pop ballad – you’d be forgiven if you thought you were about to hear “You’re All I Need to Get By.” The song is a very good bridge between Ross’ classic sound and the kind of throwback urban-pop that is popular at the moment. The lyrics are classic Diana Ross: lots of airy platitudes with vows of love and loyalty. And at 77, Ross’ voice is impeccable; no grit or sand has peppered her inimitable coo. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

When learning of who was working with Ross on Thank You, one could have hoped that Ross would have been introduced to DJ culture. In the last few years, remixes of her classic ‘70s solo hits have hit number one on the Billboard dance charts. The potential of Ross finding critical success as a dance artist akin to Mary J. Blige’s foray in dance music with her London Sessions record feels somewhat frustrating. The first dance tune, “If the World Just Danced,” is serviceable, but the banal lyrics make the sound song like an ad for a dating app.

Another dance song, “Let’s Do It” seems like a 2021-version of “Reach Out Touch (Somebody’s Hand)”, a tune that purports to be socially conscious. It’s a percolating, simmering number with Ross’ multi-layered vocals urging her listeners to “make lives better together!” It’s an admirable stab at breaking away from the love-heavy ditties, but it doesn’t do much more than just utter bromides.

Far better is “I Still Believe,” a fabulous disco tune that recalls her cover of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” Part of Ross’ biggest charm is her campiness. Though a spectacular vocalist, Ross is also slightly absurd: the hair, the gowns, the marabou, the drag queens. There’s a canny self-awareness on “I Still Believe” that elevates the material and is quite fabulous.

Also excellent is the driving, fast “Tomorrow” which is the kind of strange, eccentric music that should have defined Thank You. The lyrics are nothing, of course, but oh my god, it’s a great song. Sampled horns and a pulsing, pushing beat with a knowing vocal performance by Ross makes for a near-brilliant moment.

None of the ballads reach the heights of “I Still Believe” or “Tomorrow,” and they tip towards Ross at her saccharine worst. Though she’s magnificent when she’s warbling some heartbreaking tune, she often is saddled with some of the most cliched top 40 ballad-pop. Most of the slower moments on Thank You lean into Ross’ penchant for pop-schmaltz; the ponderous “Count On Me” is probably the worst offender, ticking all of the boxes when crafting an A/C ballad.

The album wraps up with another one of Ross’ “love each other” epic ballad. “Come Together” is the kind of stately gospely tune that benefits greatly from her spirited and genuine performance. Yes, the writing is trite and the dramatic spoken word is a touch silly, but given the wrecked year we’ve had, it’s easy to forgive Ross for trying to inject some inspiration and optimism in her work. It’s her “Man In The Mirror” and it works despite the song’s limits because she’s built up a whole lot of good will.

Thank You would’ve been a solid entry in Ross’ discography had she been more prolific in the last thirty years (in the 1970s, she was releasing a studio album every year). But given how sporadic her trips to the recording studio are, one would wish that Thank You was the brilliant comeback she deserves. There are spots on the record that hint at what could have been: the wacky disco of “Tomorrow” or the brilliant kitsch of “I Still Believe” point toward what would have been a classic album. Instead, Thank You is merely a good album. From an artist as brilliant and wonderful as Diana Ross, good isn’t good enough.

Rating: B-

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