Album Reviews

Diana Ross – Thank You

(Decca) UK release date: 5 November 2021


Diana Ross - Thank You Thank You comes a full 15 years after Diana Ross’ last album I Love You, a set of ballad covers that at the time got it in the neck for being largely redundant. After such a long gap, the appearance of the album in 2021 conspicuously begs the question: “Why now?”

Part of the reason, judging solely from the songs at least, is that in these post-covid, culture war-sodden times, we need a particular brand of positivity that only she, with her diamond white smile and comforting cloud of hair, can bring. From the evidence of most of the (brand-new) songs here, what the world really needs now is a revival of Ross’ .

The ’70s were a decade that not only won the adult contemporary music audience over to her side, but, through her disco excursions in particular, created a stalwart gay following that supports her to this day. While the Vietnam war still raged and the era of stagflation was getting underway, Ross was tenderly exhorting her listeners to Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand), exactly the kind of sunny Sesame Street sentiment that gets replicated here a lot. This kind of post-hippy pop/soul marshmallow was the speciality of Ashford & Simpson, the husband and wife team writers who get channelled here most often, particularly in the title track. Barely even an update of another Ashford & Simpson song, (You’re All I Need To Get By) if Thank You seems overly familiar, it’s probably because of the present memory of Amy Winehouse, who sampled the Marvin & Tammy version on her Tears Dry On Their Own.

However, as far as reviving a single decade goes, this comeback manages to at least be diverse, at some point revisiting virtually all the avenues Ross explored during her solo heyday. It wouldn’t be a late-era Diana Ross album without some sterling ballad work, and there are resonances all over of the increasingly syrupy Michael Masser productions (think Touch Me In The Morning) on which she came to rely in her ’70s work. Then of course there was her run of slinky disco singles sprinkled across the latter half of the decade. There’s nothing nearly as transcendent as Love Hangover here although, having remade I Will Survive as pop house 25 years ago, Ross gives it yet another try. I Still Believe, with its melody based around the cycle of fifths and empowering torch song lyrics, may be Gloria Gaynor redux but is still arguably better than recent single If The World Just Danced, which has more than half an ear pinned on what Ross’ gay audience might want from her today. Lacking a big, obvious chorus, it’s a little too ethereal to have gained a foothold in the Billboard Dance charts (where she recently celebrated a quartet of chart toppers with Eric Kupper’s Supertonic mixes of old dance hits). As a wannabe gay dance anthem, If The World Just Danced isn’t Cher’s Believe, but the Ross voice, much of its girlishness now changed by age, at least sits comfortably within the genial dance confection by not trying too hard to be showy.

The album’s most striking line comes in The Answer’s Always Love, which asks the eternal question “what if the only thing we made was music love and art”. The whole notion is a comfort blanket for boomers if ever there was one, but a message that would likely fall on the deaf ears of, if they were actually listening, young creatives hit by the pandemic, reductions in arts funding and inescapable pressures to self-brand. The track was co-written by Siedah Garrett, perhaps the only contributor here to have been round the block a comparable number of times to Ross herself. Yet despite the clammy adherence to the past, Thank You has been cooked up by a cast of mostly younger musicians and songwriters.

Surprisingly, the album’s sole producer is Jack Antonoff, aka indie pop act Bleachers, and many of the other contributors are veterans of songwriting camps, such as Sam Smith/Disclosure collaborator James Napier and Thank U Next co-writer Tayla Parx. Nobody is trying to do anything too contemporary here, and the slight remove these musicians bring to creating contemporary Ross music means we often get a pastiche of her earlier material. It’s effective, but the danger is that it veers tantalisingly close to sounding like an ironic tribute. And so, the album perhaps fares best in its simplest, and most sincerely constructed moments. Count On Me, written by her daughter Rhonda, is pure wavering emotion in the Masser style, but feels like it is speaking genuinely from the heart.

Amidst all the positivity, the worry is that even some of the track titles, like All Is Well, come across tone deaf, but if there’s one thing Diana Ross is able to do convincingly on this record, it’s to magically summon a parallel universe where, yes, we can make the world happier by smiling at a stranger, or touching a child’s face, or whatever. Hell, she might even have made us want to hold hands across the world, if Jordan Peele’s movie Us hadn’t rebranded the idea as something far more sinister. Like that odd girl in the film Mean Girls who invades a meet in the school gymnasium to emote “I wish that I could bake a cake made out of rainbows and smiles and we’d all eat it and be happy,” there’s something uncannily out of place with Thank You arriving at this particular moment in history. And yet, that’s simultaneously what makes it so appealing. In the class of 2021, so what if Diana Ross doesn’t even go here any more? Perhaps she has correctly intuited that, as we wallow in our deep cynicism, we might need that rainbow/smile cake after all.

 


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