“When the moment comes I’ll be your dancer, I’ll be your singer and your song…”
Diana Ross kicked off the 1990s with The Force Behind The Power, her second studio album under her second contract with Motown Records. After leaving Motown the first time for a stint with RCA Records, Miss Ross returned to the label late in the decade and released Workin’ Overtime, an album she no doubt believed would win her a legion of young fans and return her to the top of the charts. That didn’t happen; Workin’ Overtime was her lowest charting solo album ever, and critics were not kind to the youthful R&B sound she and producer Nile Rodgers had gone for. Though she’d turned in some good vocals on the album and it wasn’t really the disaster a lot of people have painted it out to be, the message was certainly loud and clear that Diana Ross needed to get back to basics a bit.
That’s exactly what The Force Behind The Power attempts to do; the album features producing/writing credits including Stevie Wonder and James Anthony Carmichael (who’d co-produced her hit “Missing You”), as well as Peter Asher, known for his work with James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt. These names are significant — Wonder and Carmichael (Lionel Richie’s longtime collaborator) certainly help remind listeners of Diana’s legacy as Queen of Motown, while Asher’s classy pop productions are the kind of adult contemporary material many fans missed on Workin’ Overtime. The result is an album miles away from her last one; more similar to 1987′s Red Hot Rhythm & Blues, this is a work that focuses on strong material suited to Diana Ross’s voice, allowing it to naturally display range rather than forcing it unnecessarily.
The Force Behind The Power would emerge as one of Diana Ross’s best albums in years; the only real fault is a lack of fire in a few songs — something that would be corrected with her next studio album, 1995′s Take Me Higher. Unfortunately, it was not the hit it deserved to be…at least, not in the United States. First single “When You Tell Me That You Love Me” cracked the R&B and AC charts, but somehow didn’t get any play on the pop side. The song was a massive hit in the UK, though, hitting #2 and becoming her biggest single there since “Chain Reaction.” While that song was followed by several other top 40 singles overseas, not a single track from the album managed to become a hit in the United States. Perhaps, as was the case on 1971′s Surrender and 1977′s Baby It’s Me, there were just too many strong songs for the folks at Motown to just choose one and focus on making a hit. If that’s the case, it’s a shame, because there are several works here that could have become Diana Ross classics for the public at large, rather than just for fans.
1. Change Of Heart: The album opens with its strongest track; this is an upbeat pop song that is one of the best songs Diana Ross had recorded in years — and really among the best of her solo career. I’ve read that this was considered for release as the debut single, and that at one point the album was going to be named Change Of Heart. If only; this would have been a dynamic first single that could have easily found success on the pop and R&B listings had it been well-promoted and had Miss Ross performed it live on television appearances in the United States (there’s a video floating around online of her performing it live in Tokyo, and it’s masterful). The fact that it wasn’t released to radio at all is extremely puzzling; this really is a perfect pop record featuring a sterling vocal performance. Written by Terry Britten and Graham Lyle — the men behind Tina Turner’s massive comeback hit “What’s Love Got To Do With It” — the song is a swinging mid-tempo number with a shimmering, classy instrumental and catchy, simple lyric. Diana’s vocal performance is superb; she sounds completely engaged and in command here, and she manages to show off some range and power without ever oversinging or murdering the song’s melody. It’s a thrill to hear her go for — and nail — the repeated high notes at the end of the song, starting around 3:22; her ad-libbing here is reminiscent of her work at the end of “Love Child” from way back in 1968! The rest of the performance is subtle and playful; the song makes full use of her smooth and sexy lower register (allowing her to add in some nice, soulful flourishes during the verses) and shows off her crisp, clear soprano on the chorus. This is the song that should have returned Diana Ross to the top of the pop charts; it should have also garnered her a Grammy nomination for Female Pop Vocal Performance — it’s that good. Motown would miss a lot of opportunities during Diana’s second stint with the company, but this is one of the big ones that got away.
2. When You Tell Me That You Love Me: This is the most famous song off of the album, as it has proven to have a long life overseas; not only did it hit #2 on the charts when it was released in 1991, but it hit #2 again in the UK in 2005 when British group Westlife recorded it with Diana. The success of both versions has made it one of Miss Ross’s signature songs in England; strangely, it mirrors her other two major UK hits, “I’m Still Waiting” and ”Chain Reaction,” in that it was only a very minor success in the United States (the release topped out at #37 on the R&B chart). It’s unfortunate that this song was ignored in the US; it’s really a lovely, classic ballad, and the kind of song that Diana Ross — when she wants to — delivers like nobody else. Her performance here is strong; the song requires range and power, and Miss Ross certainly delivers, especially during the last chorus (at around 3 minutes in, after the guitar solo) when the song changes key and Diana really starts belting. The production, by Peter Asher, is pop at its more romantic and slick; if there’s any issue to be had with the song, it’s that it’s almost a little too slick. The best Diana Ross ballads — songs like “Missing You” and her work on The Wiz soundtrack — have a soulful edge that brings out a warmth in her voice that pure pop music sometimes misses; this was the case on Diana’s final recordings with Michael Masser. There’s a little bit of that here, although it’s still a strong recording. It was also a nice way to demonstrate that nearly 20 years after “Touch Me In The Morning,” Diana Ross hadn’t lost her ability to sell a powerful ballad — especially since younger artists like Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston were dominating the charts with their own showy love songs.
3. Battlefield: An extremely enjoyable, almost classic Motown-ish number that gives Miss Ross a chance to channel the women who dominated finger-popping heartbreak songs as lead singer of the Supremes in the 1960s. There are moments where Diana really sounds like she’s 20 years old again; listen to her sing, “Everything that can…has gone wrong” at around 1:50 in and you can hear the same woman who cried, “Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone” in 1967. The instrumental track is an exciting mix of swirling strings, driving drums, and howling harmonica; the wash of female singers behind Diana is reminiscent of those that backed her on “Last Time I Saw Him” in 1974. This song is a nice way of keeping the album a contemporary one while also reminding listeners of the musical contributions its singer had made over the past 30 years; it’s a great inclusion.
4. Blame It On The Sun: Back in 1977, Diana Ross covered Stevie Wonder’s “Too Shy To Say” on her Baby It’s Me LP; her sensitive performance atop the simple, piano-drive track was a standout and remains one of her great ballad performances. Here is a case of Diana covering Stevie again; he’d first written and recorded the song “Blame It On The Sun” for 1972′s Talking Book. Miss Ross turns in another tender, heartfelt performance here, although the song isn’t ultimately as strong as her earlier take on a Wonder composition. This isn’t her fault; she sounds great and certainly seems to be deeply connected to the lyrics. She particularly sounds appealing around the 3:00 mark, when she sighs heavily and really digs into the words. The issue here lies in the production; the synth-heavy opening feels a little overdone and New Age-y, and probably would’ve been better served by simpler line consisting of a solo piano. That said, I think the track sounds better as the song goes on, eventually featuring a dreamy element akin to the feeling of “Summertime” on Red Hot Rhythm & Blues. This isn’t the strongest ballad on the album, but it’s a really good one; it again proves that Miss Ross was in fine voice during this time period.
5. Heavy Weather: This is an album standout, almost as strong as “Change Of Heart,” and a song that deserves far more recognition than it’s ever gotten. This soulful number easily would have fit in with both Quiet Storm and smooth jazz radio playlists; I’m not sure if it was ever released to radio, but should have been, as it is a song that could have easily been recorded by Anita Baker or Sade, both of whom were extremely popular at the time. The instrumental here is sterling and inventive; opening with storm sound effects and clips of weather forecasts, the tune melts into a mesmerizing groove made up of a bouncy bassline and shimmering keyboards. Diana’s vocal performance here is far superior to most of her work through the 1980s and would stand as one of her best of the 1990s, too; she is relaxed and completely on-point with her interpretation of the lyrics, which echo those of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” — a connection that further strengthens this album’s ties to Miss Ross’s classic Motown days. She even gets to do a little scatting at the 4:00 mark; it’s nice to hear her be loose and inventive in front of the microphone. It’s not really surprising that Diana Ross would be successful with a song like this, given her history with jazz music dating back to 1972′s Lady Sings The Blues; what’s really surprising is that she didn’t record more songs like this — the sounds she creates on this track really is magic.
6. The Force Behind The Power: Stevie Wonder wrote and produced “The Force Behind The Power” for Diana; it’s a song she clearly loved and connected with, as she’s mentioned it several times in interviews and chose to perform it on “The Arsenio Hall Show” to promote the album. The song is classic Stevie Wonder, from the “universal love” theme to the sparse, percussive track and the explosive choir of background voices. It is, admittedly, a song better suited to him than to her; the rapid-fire pace of some of the lyrics and the quickness of the note-jumping are techniques Wonder is a master at, whereas Diana can sometimes get a little caught up, and in a just a few instances her voice sounds a bit wobbly. That said, she sounds great on the majority of the track; her crystal-clear soprano is pure and rich during the verses, especially the first during the first minute-and-a-half of the song. The song, like “Battlefield,” works well in terms of balancing a contemporary sound without turning off longtime, mature fans; certainly it goes a better job of marrying Diana’s vocal to a hip beat than many of the songs on Workin’ Overtime did.
7. Heart (Don’t Change My Mind): Diana Ross’s version of this song sounds almost identical to the 1984 version recorded by Barbra Streisand (for her Emotion) album; both are pure pop ballads featuring keyboards, big instrumental breaks, and tender lead vocals. Both also happen to be a little slow and plodding; coming after six energetic, focused songs, this one brings The Force Behind The Power to a bit of a halt, and emerges as probably the least memorable ballad on the entire work. That’s not to say it’s a bad recording; it’s not. But it’s not nearly as strong as “When You Tell Me…,” “One Shining Moment,” or even “Blame It On The Sun” — those songs have a uniqueness and energy to them that this one doesn’t quite match. Interestingly, it’s an early Diane Warren composition (co-written with Robbie Buchanan) and has a similar sound to some of the songs Warren would write for Diana almost ten years later for Every Day Is A New Day; “Someone That You Loved Before,” in particular, sounds like a close cousin of this earlier recording. Again, this isn’t a misstep, but it lacks some of the fire of the other recordings on the work, which puts it a step behind.
8. Waiting In The Wings: A pleasant, shuffling R&B tune that’s another nice example of Diana giving the kind of classy, adult performance that was largely lacking on her previous studio album. Her voice, indeed, sounds as good here as it does on any other track on the album; her clear, bell-like tone is front and center and she sounds like the confident and seasoned vocalist she is. If anything, the track doesn’t quite match her ability as a vocalist; it’s a nice composition — the lyrics and melody are strong — but the production here doesn’t pack the kind of punch that tracks like “Change Of Heart” and “Heavy Weather” do. Everything here aside from the lead vocal sounds a bit muted; the keyboard-dominated instrumental and background vocals bubble just under the surface, and perhaps had they been allowed a few peaks, the song would have gained just a little more momentum. Of course, you don’t expect every single song on an album to be single-worthy (although, amazingly, this was released as a single, ahead of far more worthy songs!), and this is a worthy album track; again, Diana proves that her voice is as smooth as ever.
9. One Shining Moment: This is the best love ballad on the CD, and is one of the best ballads of Diana’s solo career; it was a top 10 hit in the UK, and deserved a shot as a single in the United States. This is a more focused and accessible ballad than “When You Tell Me That You Love Me,” and had it followed a strong opening single like ”Change Of Heart” to radio in the US, probably could have given Diana some traction in the pop market. The composition itself is extremely catchy and relatable; the words of the chorus (“You’re my One Shining Moment, you are all my dreams come true…) are a natural soundtrack for weddings and anniversary parties, and the melody is memorable and an easy one to sing along to. But the real reason for the song’s success is Diana Ross’s sterling vocal performance; her voice is warm and appealing on the verses and her phrasing on the choruses is genius, as she punches the words just a touch, keeping them simple and sweet, precisely what the lyrics call for. Of course, the song’s greatest thrill comes as Diana hits the bridge, right at 3:00 into the song. Her voice soars as she sings, “I wake up with you on my mind…you light up my day…” and she continues to build until the climactic moment when she remarkably stretches up an entire octave during the word “say” at 3:23; this is one of the greatest single moments of Diana’s recording career, a demonstration of range and power that most casual fans (and critics) are completely unaware she’s capable of. There are those who will forever compare Diana to singers like Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle, soulful ladies with a completely different approach to singing than Miss Ross; this, however, is a case of Diana unleashing her voice in exactly the same way that Aretha or Patti would, and doing it just as well. Had this song been released as a single in the States and been at least somewhat of a hit, it probably could have gotten her a Grammy nomination; certainly it should have. For those who believe Diana’s voice “limited” in range and ability, this song is definitive proof — like “Missing You” and ”It’s My Turn” — that when it comes to really connecting to a lyric and letting her voice go when appropriate, there is nobody better than Diana Ross.
10. You’re Gonna Love It: If one song on The Force Behind The Power doesn’t quite fit with the others, this would be it; it’s the closest to a “hip hop” or “New Jack” sound that this album comes, and is far more youth-oriented than anything else featured here. Being that it’s tacked on near the end of the album, it does feel awfully awkward; I wonder if Motown, Diana, or both worried about not having something a little “harder” and more contemporary on the album, and thus decided to include this song late in the game. “You’re Gonna Love It” isn’t a bad song, although the track is a little bland and ultimately sounds a bit like the closing theme to “Living Single” (the Queen Latifah-starring TV show); it doesn’t require much of Miss Ross as a vocalist, but it’s a better fit for her than many of the songs on Workin’ Overtime in that her voice at least doesn’t sound strained or thin. There are some nice moments for her, in particular her soulful “…and I can’t wait to show you…” at 2:00 in, but the dominant factor in this song is the beat, and thus it’s ultimately not as impressive as many of the songs which have come before it.
11. If We Hold On Together: Listed as a “bonus track” on the CD, this was actually recorded back in the late 1980s as the theme to the animated feature film The Land Before Time. Though the song was not a hit in the US, it was enormous overseas, topping the charts in Japan and apparently becoming one of the most successful singles of all time there. It’s interesting that it was included here, in that it hadn’t been a major hit in the States; that said, it certainly is a good fit for the album, as it’s a lovely pop ballad which is tailor-made for Miss Ross. As on the album’s other ballads, Diana sounds completely in command here, and offers up a warm and well-rounded performance. The film was a hit, which makes it interesting that the song didn’t do well on the charts; the writers are James Horner and Will Jennings, who would years later deliver a monster hit for Celine Dion with “My Heart Will Go On,” the theme to Titanic. Whatever the case was, this is a good song, if not nearly the best film theme Diana would ever record (after all, this is the woman who gave us “It’s My Turn,” “Endless Love,” and “Theme From Mahogany“), and it certainly holds good memories for kids who fell in love with the animated dinosaurs of The Land Before Time (as evidenced by “American Idol” winner Jordin Sparks choosing to sing the song on her season of the show).
You And I: Released only on the international versions of the album, this is a pretty ballad that, in production, sounds a bit similar to “The Best Years Of Our Life,” a song Diana would record and release in a few years. Miss Ross’s voice is pitch-perfect here; the song is somewhat challenging, changing from major to minor keys throughout, and she effortless glides along throughout the running time. It’s not quite as memorable as the other ballads on the album, which might be why it was left off the Motown version of the album; there really isn’t a “hooky” chorus here, though it’s still a really pleasant listen.
No Matter What You Do: Also included only on international versions of the album, this is a duet with singer Al B. Sure! that was pulled as a single from this album Private Times…And The Whole 9! It was a solid R&B hit for the pair, reaching #4 on the chart, although it didn’t hit the pop listings at all; being that it was at least an R&B hit, it’s interesting that it wasn’t included on the US version of The Force…, although it may have had to do with the fact that Sure! was signed to Warner Bros. records, not Motown. In any case, it’s a strong Quiet Storm ballad; both singers sound great, with Diana in particular giving a sexy, simmering performance with some fun spoken passages, soulful flourishes, and a few moments of vocal power (such as her nice “God bless the day that you came!”).
Though there is solace in the fact that The Force Behind The Power was such a success internationally, it is incredibly disheartening that Motown could not make the album a hit in Diana Ross’s home country. It was, quite simply, the best album from start to finish that she’d released since 1980′s diana; the material was uniformly stronger and her voice in much better shape than on just about all of her remaining 1980s albums. Along with that, there were standouts that could have made great singles; “Change Of Heart,” “One Shining Moment,” and “Heavy Weather” are all among the best of her solo work, and amazingly none were released as singles in the States. Though the album plays it a little too safe at times — songs like “Heart (Don’t Change My Mind)” and “Waiting In The Wings” could have used some edge — Diana always sounds engaged and well-suited to the material. Those songs are certainly as good as anything else hitting radio in 1991.
The good news is that The Force Behind The Power has aged extremely well; it’s an album that still sounds good today, and is a good record of what Miss Ross was still capable of 30 years into her recording career. Only those with a strong bias against Diana Ross could listen to songs like “Change Of Heart” and “One Shining Moment” and not admit that there’s a huge amount of skill and talent evident there. Of course, that skill and talent would be on better display with Diana’s next studio album for Motown, 1995′s Take Me Higher, which would be the crowning achievement of her second stint with Motown…but until then, The Force Behind The Power would serve as a huge improvement over much of what Miss Ross had been recording for the past decade.
Final Analysis: 4.5/5 (A “Shining Moment”)
Choice Cuts: “Change Of Heart,” “One Shining Moment,” “Heavy Weather”