“Right or wrong, I will stand up like a tree, happy or sad, good or bad, I Am Me…”
Diana Ross must have been in a really good place emotionally in 1982; she’d just scored the biggest single of her career (“Endless Love” with Lionel Richie) and her first album as an RCA Records artist — Why Do Fools Fall In Love — was a platinum-selling hit featuring two top 10 singles. More importantly, she’d executive produced the album herself and co-written one of the songs, finally allowing herself the creative control that she’d clearly been craving for quite some time. The fact that the album was a success had to be major validation for the singer, and probably inspired her to go even further in terms of artistic experimentation for her next album.
And that brings us to Silk Electric, which is again produced by Miss Ross and this time features her name as co-writer on four of the ten tracks. Her second RCA album featured another top 10, Grammy-nominated hit in the song “Muscles,” famously written and produced for Diana by Michael Jackson (his Thriller would be released later in the year). The second single, “So Close,” was one of Diana’s original compositions, and managed to make the lower reaches of the top 40. The album, while not as massive a seller as Why Do Fools… or diana, ended up going gold, thus continuing Diana’s streak of solid-selling albums.
So does all this mean that Silk Electric is a good album? Well…that depends on your definition of good. There’s no doubt that it’s her most experimental album ever; artistically Diana was pushing boundaries all over the place. “Muscles” is straight-up R&B, “Fool For Your Love” is hard rock, “In Your Arms” is a big pop ballad, and “I Am Me” features an unusual reggae beat; “Who,” meanwhile, is classic disco, and “So Close” is a 50s doo-wop throwback. You get the picture — perhaps the only genre not touched upon here is country. By this time, Diana Ross had been proving for 20 years that she could sing any kind of music, so hearing her branch out isn’t necessarily surprising. Hearing it all smashed together into one album is another story, though, and listening to Silk Electric straight-through can be a bizarre and jarring experience.
But a far greater issue than the material is the overall sound quality of the album. Much of the material here isn’t just produced…it’s over-produced. Diana’s voice often sounds so lost in echo that she seems to be singing from the far end of a deep, dark cave. There’d been a few cases of this less-than-clear vocal production on Why Do Fools Fall In Love, but here it’s every single track, and by the time the final song winds down, you might feel like you’ve been listening to the album through a pair of very old headphones. Since Diana was behind the wheel on this project, there’s obviously a reason she made herself sound this way. The excess echo and almost blurred sound make sense on some songs, but completely ruin others (most notably “So Close,” which was actually re-mixed before being released as a single), and that makes the LP a much more uneven experience than just the fact that it’s so stylistically varied.
1. Muscles: If “Work That Body,” the final single pulled from Why Do Fools Fall In Love, was Diana Ross dipping her toe into the pool of campy pop, “Muscles” is her jumping head-first into the deep end. Ten years earlier, Miss Ross had tackled the mature, challenging themes of Billie Holiday’s music in Lady Sings The Blues…and here she is, a decade older, girlishly purring about her need for a man “I can hold on to.” This ode to male beauty was actually written by a man — the one and only Michael Jackson — on his first collaboration with Diana Ross since 1978’s The Wiz. “Muscles” was released in September of 1982, and ended up charting in the pop and R&B top 10. The next month — October — Jackson’s debut single from Thriller would hit store shelves and music history would be made. Alas, “Muscles” is not really an important part of that music history; though it was a hit and earned Diana a Grammy nomination, it’s still a pretty thin and ridiculous song. The high-pitched, whispery vocal Diana turns in is certainly unique, but I wouldn’t exactly call it sexy (which is clearly the intention) — she sounded far sexier on early songs like “Baby It’s Love” and “I’m A Winner” on which she was just plain singing and not trying so hard. The track, meanwhile, is also unusual for Ross; it’s got that slick, dark feel that a lot of Michael Jackson songs of the era have, as though it were being produced in an old haunted house (complete with pops that sound like claps of thunder). All this said, “Muscles” is so weird that it’s kind of hard to dislike; there’s something about it’s weirdness that’s charming and compelling, especially knowing that Jackson was the mastermind behind the whole thing. And the totally insane music video? That’s another story!
2. So Close: The second single released from Silk Electric, this one wasn’t a big hit, although it did just make the pop top 40. The song is a nice 1950s throwback; Diana Ross’s first RCA single, “Why Do Fools Fall In Love,” was a re-make of a doo-wop classic, but this song — an original — actually sounds much closer in spirit to songs of the era. Co-written by Miss Ross, the lyric and melody are both strong; this is actually one of the best songs bearing Diana’s name as writer. The problem with “So Close” is in the production; Diana’s vocal is echoed and doubled and buried under every other effect that could possible make it sound muddled. The background vocals (led and arranged by Luther Vandross, who is clearly audible in the song’s great breakdown of the word “always”) sound great, and the track sounds fine…but the sound quality of the lead vocal is just maddeningly poor. What’s worse is that this isn’t a reflection of Diana’s performance in the studio; she actually sounds strong and shows some range on this song, which was made evident when producer Richard Perry remixed it for single release. This remixed single version is far, far superior, as Diana’s voice is cleaned up and brought to the forefront; the song also sounded much better when Diana performed it live during her famous Central Park concert in 1983 (and almost fell off the stage during the performance — giving a frightening double meaning to the title of the song!). It’s a shame Richard Perry didn’t produce the song in the first place, as it would have been such a stronger addition to the album, and might have helped it become a better-known song.
3. Still In Love: One of the better Diana Ross album cuts of the decade, this is a classic 80s power-ballad, led by electric guitars that share center stage with the lead vocal and sharp drum work that nicely accentuates the dramatic high points of the song. Melodically, this is easily the strongest song on the entire album; it’s a very well-written tune with a nice, simple lyric and a catchy chorus that’s hard not to sing along with (I can totally envision a crowd of people holding up lighters and chanting along “Still In Love…” during a concert!). Though the production is mired in echo, it actually works on this song, helping to set a haunting tone which matches the words — Diana is singing about a lost love, and the almost distant sound of her vocal manages to enhance the mood. And listening beyond that echo, this really is a classic Diana Ross ballad performance; her work on the verses is delicate and deliberate, and she sounds passionate and emotional on the chorus — especially at the end, when her voice is double-tracked and she sings along with herself. Though there’s nothing classically R&B about this song, it is a great pop/rock ballad that, if marketed well, I think could have worked better as a single than “So Close.” This is one of those songs that Diana could have killed in concert, too, and it’s a shame that it didn’t become a well-known cut for that reason alone.
4. Fool For Your Love: So did you ever wonder what Diana Ross would sound like singing hard rock? Me neither…but she goes ahead and shows us anyway with “Fool For Your Love” — which, amazingly, is another song that features her name as a co-writer. Though she’d treaded lightly into the rock sound with earlier work like “I Heard A Love Song (But You Never Made A Sound)” on Last Time I Saw Him, this song is full-on early 80s rock, with Diana throwing herself into the role of Alice Cooper like she did Billie Holiday a decade earlier. Miss Ross actually performs the track with an impressive energy, turning in a gutteral, growling performance that doesn’t even remotely resemble her tender work on songs like “It’s My Turn” or “Touch Me In The Morning.” I can’t think of a single comtemporary of Miss Ross’s who could have pulled this off to the level that she does; it’s impossible to imagine Dionne or Aretha attempting “Fool For Your Love,” let alone helping to write it. That said…”Fool For Your Love” really isn’t a great song; it’s certainly one-note, and the lyrics are rather clunky (“I don’t want to be around, for that famous final scene, I just can’t help myself, I’m a Fool For You Love” doesn’t exactly roll of the tongue). This is another case of Diana Ross sounding as though she’s shouting through an air-conditioning vent — although the poor sound quality of her lead vocal isn’t that jarring since it’s such a different vocal performance for her anyway. “Fool For Your Love” isn’t a highlight of the Ross discography, but — like “Muscles” — it’s kind of a fun listen just because it’s so weird.
5. Turn Me Over: This isn’t actually a song…this is a short, strange musical interlude with Diana’s Martian-like command to “Turn Me Over…” — cueing listeners to flip the LP to Side 2. What can I say? It’s kind of clever…and I like it. Her imagination was certainly running wild.
6. Who: After a couple of very strange songs kicking off the LP, Diana Ross heads back to much more comfortable territory with “Who,” a bass-heavy disco song that sounds a lot like some of the songs she’d recorded for Why Do Fools Fall In Love the year before. The track here is pretty typical of late 70s/early 80s dance; there are prominent, swirling strings, that regular pop of the bass, and and a robotic drum-beat. Diana turns in a very cool, icy performance; there’s an almost startling pack of passion from her here, and the layering of her voice on the entire song only further makes her sound detatched. In this case, Ross the producer may have had a reason for making Ross the singer sound like this; the lyric is about being left alone, and she repeatedly asks the question, “Who washed away the colors in my life?” So maybe it makes sense that she sounds devoid of any emotional “color” herself. Still, at this point in the album, there’s been a distinct lack of personality for too long (other than on “Still In Love”), and this song in particular feels a little too generic. It’s not hard to imagine any other female singer of the era recording this tune and doing just as well if not beter, which is sad considering when Diana Ross is at her best (such as on “Love Hangover” or “I’m Coming Out”), it’s impossible to replace her.
7. Love Lies: This is the LP’s second rock power-ballad, and it’s produced and performed similarly to “Still In Love.” It is not, however, as strong as song as that previous track, due to a less-catchy melody and the fact that Diana’s voice is pushed much further back into the mix. She is nearly buried by the instrumental; the electric guitar mirrors her melody vocal closely, and overpowers her in many cases. The best and most exciting part of the song comes at around 2:40 — which is the instrumental break, where at least there’s no competition for center stage. The lyrics here portray a bitter woman realizing that love isn’t what she thought it would be; for such an emotional concept, the overall song is really lacking in fire, and Diana doesn’t inject a whole lot of passion into her performance. This isn’t the worst song on the album, but it does emerge as perhaps the least memorable.
8. In Your Arms: This is what I’d consider to be the worst song on the album, which is completely surprising given that it’s a ballad written by Michael Masser, the man responsible for Diana Ross classics like “Touch Me In The Morning,” “Theme From Mahogany,” and “It’s My Turn.” There is no doubt that the team of Masser and Ross were capable of creating magic, but there’s a key difference between the aforementioned singles and this track: Michael Masser had always produced his songs on Diana Ross…and this time, Diana produced it herself. According to writer J. Randy Taraborrelli in Diana Ross: A Biography, Diana decided to record the song but didn’t want to return to the studio with Masser because she’d found him difficult to work with. This is unfortunate, because even on their less-than-stellar tracks (like some of those that appeared on To Love Again), Diana’s voice was always the center of attention. Take, for example, a song like “To Love Again” (from 1978’s Ross), on which Miss Ross handles a challenging melody line with a delicate skill that becomes more and more apparent with repeated listens; though she never oversings the song, and while there’s a complex instrumentral line behind her, she’s still the star of the piece. On “In Your Arms,” Diana Ross completely overdoes the lead vocal; she lays it on thick here, again layering her voice (practically duetting with herself) and blurring it with echo and making herself sound so syrupy and saccharine that she’s honestly a little hard to listen to. In this way, “In Your Arms” is similar to her solo rendition of “Endless Love” on Why Do Fools Fall In Love, on which her normally effortless way with a ballad becomes laborious to listen to. And the proof here, I think, is that two years later, this same song (re-titled “Hold Me”) became an R&B hit for Teddy Pendergrass and Whitney Houston — it was actually Houston’s first single. Their version is much cleaner, crisper, and less dramatic, and doesn’t sound nearly as dated as Diana’s, even though only a few years separated the two. Had Mr. Masser been given the chance to cut this song on Diana, perhaps the results would have been much different.
9. Anywhere You Run To: This is an upbeat pop/dance tune, and comes as an enormous relief after the one-two punch of “Love Lies” and “In Your Arms,” both of which are slow and pretty morose. “Anywhere You Run To” isn’t a great song, but it at least has a little personality and Diana’s voice sounds crisper on the verses than it does on most of the rest of the album. The bouncy chorus and the fantastic instrumental break feature some nice horn work similar to that which was so predominant on Why Do Fools Fall In Love, and the popping bass adds some spunk behind Diana’s vocal. Miss Ross, of course, is a master of giving great upbeat, joyful performances; her first solo single, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” boasts a climax so uplifting that it’s practually a religious experience in and of itself, and works like “I’m Coming Out” and “The Boss” are master classes in emoting joy and energy through song. It’s too bad that she couldn’t quite channel that energy for this song; had she pushed herself a little harder, it would have elevated the quality of the song exponentially. As it stands, “Anywhere You Run To” does add some energy to Silk Electric, but certainly isn’t a standout Ross dance track.
10. I Am Me: There are an awful lot of strange songs on this LP, but it closes with one of the strangest, a reggae-styled piece bearing the amazing writing credits of Diana Ross, Janie Bradford, and Freddie Gorman. Both Gorman and Bradford were big players in Diana’s early days at Motown; Bradford was a Motown staffer and songwriter and the woman credited with coming up with the list of names from which “Supremes” was chosen, and Gorman co-wrote the Supremes first single, “I Want A Guy,” and was part of the label’s group The Originals. From what I’ve read, Bradford and Gorman submitted the song to Diana, who then re-tooled it and recorded it for this album (she also reportedly chose it as the b-side to the “Muscles” single purposefully, knowing that it would help make the pair a lot of money). However it came to be recorded, it’s one of the most unusual songs of Diana’s career; there really isn’t another song in her entire catalogue that sounds like it. The Jamaican-beat is extremely catchy, and though the lyrics aren’t particularly strong, they do almost serve as an unapologetic mission statement for the entire album: “Should I fail and come to my ruin, or if I succeed it will be, be my doing…” Diana Ross doubles her voice again here, and the song (as on “In My Arms”) almost becomes a duet with herself; the effect works pretty well, even though her vocal performance overall is lacking in fire — especially given the nature of the lyrics, which revolve around a self-empowerment theme that generally brings out superb work by the singer (as on “It’s My Turn,” “Home,” “I’m In The World,” and many others). Still, “I Am Me” is a good way to close the album, as the cut is striking enough to be a cut above most of the others here.
Because Diana Ross had been on such a unprecedented hot streak in 1980 and 1981, it makes sense that she could finally really experiment and unleash her creativity on this album; she was selling millions of records, and there wasn’t as much pressure to play it safe and come up with a sure-fire hit. Therefore, it’s a little hard to be really harsh when judging Silk Electric. True, it’s nowhere near one of her best albums, and really is of a lesser quality than even some of her more mediocre work from her Motown days. But there is some courage in releasing an album that is so deliberately diverse — perhaps a little too much courage. Still, again, it’s not the material that ends up sinking the album, although there really aren’t any truly strong songs here, aside from maybe “Still In Love.” The major issue remains the dated, muddled sound quality, which just becomes hard to listen to after awhile. Though this was an issue on her previous album and is a big one here, it thankfully would stop with her next album, 1983’s Ross, which would return her to a crystal clear sound. So while Silk Electric is a challenging and at times not very pleasant listen, it at least offers a little glimpse into the creative mind of Miss Diana Ross, and shows some new sides of her, whether that’s (as she sings in “I Am Me”) good or bad.
Final Analysis: 2.5/5 (Diana Flexes Her “Muscles,” But Misses The Knockout)
Choice Cuts: “Still In Love,” “I Am Me,” “Muscles”
The Grammy nominees for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance that year were:
Jennifer Holliday, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” (Winner)
Aretha Franklin, “Jump To It”
Diana Ross, “Muscles”
Patrice Rushen, “Forget Me Nots”
Donna Summer, “Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger)”
Deniece Williams, “It’s Gonna Take A Miracle”