“But I’ll tell you this for sure, if nothing is ventured, then nothing is gained…”
1983 would turn out to be one of the biggest years of Diana Ross’s career, although it had nothing to do with the new material she was releasing. Coming after the platinum Why Do Fools Fall In Love and the gold Silk Electric, 1983’s Ross — Diana’s third album for RCA Records — pretty much sank without a trace. There wasn’t a major hit single to be found here — the closest was “Pieces Of Ice,” which just made the top 40. Still, Diana Ross would garner as much publicity as she ever had in 1983 — first, due to her appearance and “reunion” with the Supremes on the TV special “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, and Forever,” and next with her infamous Central Park concerts, broadcast on Showtime.
Considering the fact that the Central Park concerts (the first of which ended with Diana singing in the rain, which led to all the publicity) got her enormous amounts of press, it’s surprising Ross — released around the same time — is such an unknown album. Diana did perform two songs from Ross during the concerts — “Pieces Of Ice” and “Let’s Go Up.” Perhaps the problem is that the drama of the wind and rain lent itself, of course, to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” — with the lyric “No wind…no rain…can stop me…” — and thus most of the news coverage showed clips of Diana singing that song (too bad there hadn’t been an ice storm…Diana could’ve sung “Pieces Of Ice” and maybe it would’ve been bigger on radio!).
The real surprise, though, is that while Diana’s third album for RCA wasn’t a hit, it’s far superior in quality to her previous two. Why Do Fools Fall In Love was a good album, but had moments married by poor sound and some bland songs. Silk Electric was almost completely marred by the poor sound, with Diana’s voice tough to listen to and some songs that were not only bland, but downright bizarre. Ross, meanwhile, is an album that feels like a complete musical work; each song is a natural progression of the last, and the sound quality is crisp. The majority of the album was produced by Gary Katz, known for producing the albums of Steely Dan — and he and the group were notorious for their attention to sound and details in music. Diana’s voice here is crystal-clear and completely unfettered; unlike on her previous two albums, she is never lost in the mix, nor is she competing with the instruments for attention.
Of course, the cool, synthesizer-heavy sound has also turned off fans and critics over the years, likely another reason for the album’s failure — All Music Guide’s review of the album notes “…that precise, icy sound those guys always get, not a sound that meshes well with Ross.” I don’t think this is necessarily true; while on some songs there’s no doubt that Diana sounds almost a little too laid-back and unengaged, there are some really nice highlights here, especially Diana’s confident, powerful turn on “Let’s Go Up” (a song that should have been a big hit for her). Though there’s not one single song here that’s as strong as other 80s hits like “Mirror Mirror” or “Missing You,” there’s also not a single song that sounds like it should have been left off the album, which helps elevate it above the rest of her RCA work.
1. That’s How You Start Over: The album’s opener is one of the strongest compositions on the album, a light and bouncy R&B tune co-written by Michael McDonald. It actually sounds a lot like a song McDonald would have recorded; it’s a slickly-produced piece with some fine piano and horn work. Diana’s vocal is incredibly refreshing after the heavy, plodding feel of several songs from Silk Electric; here she keeps the performance clean and simple. The only flaw is that Diana sounds almost a little too relaxed; the instrumental track is so joyous that it would have been nice to hear Miss Ross let loose just a little bit more with some ad-libs a la 1979’s “The Boss.” Still, this is a nice way to open the album; the song still sounds good today, and is strikingly more modern than pretty much anything on Diana’s previous two RCA albums, thanks to the classy production (seriously, listen to this back-t0-back with “Who” from Silk Electric — it sounds like more than five years passed between them…not one!).
2. Love Will Make It Right: This song was written by Donald Fagan, the co-founder of Steely Dan, who had just released his successful solo album The Nightfly the year before. “Love Will Make It Right” sounds similar to the songs on Fagan’s album; it’s a mellow, synth-heavy tune and features a repetitive chorus of voices chanting “Love…will make it right…love…will choose the night…love…will make it right” in an eerie, staccato manner that becomes hypnotic. Diana actually matches the tone well with her restrained vocal performance, and the song gives her a chance to sing in her lower range a little bit, which is nice to hear. Though the synthesizers are dated, the song overall has such a cold, remote feel that it seems to be beamed in from the future. The jazzy harmonies that surround Diana’s voice periodically (when she sings the words “love will make it right”) are classic Fagan and a nice touch, subtly nodding to Diana’s own past forays into jazz. Though there are stronger songs on Ross, this is a memorable one in that it doesn’t really sound like anything else in the Diana Ross discography.
3. You Do It: After the restrained, remote feel of “Love Will Make It Right,” Diana and Katz bring back some warmth with this lovely, simple mid-tempo pop tune. This is one of the more engaging songs on Ross; it’s got a nice, straight-forward lyric, and Miss Ross delivers a performance that is full of feeling while never being over-dramatic. In a way, it’s reminiscent of “I’ll Settle For You” from Diana’s 1971 album Surrender; both songs feature an easy-going and pleasant vibe that is compulsively listenable. Had this been released to radio, I think it could have gained some strong pop airplay; Diana’s crystal-clear soprano rides the pretty melody in the way that only her voice can, and it’s hard not to sing along. Perhaps the song just sounded too simple for execs to consider it for single release, but they missed an opportunity here; certainly it seems like a much more natural choice than “Up Front” to go to radio, and it’s a song that still sounds contemporary and probably could have had a nice, long life.
4. Pieces Of Ice: This was the album’s first single, a rock/dance track that stylistically foreshadowed her hit “Swept Away” the next year. “Pieces Of Ice” wasn’t a total bomb, although it wasn’t a big success; it topped out at #31 on the Billboard Hot 100, and made the R&B top 20. It has, however, virtually disappeared from the Diana Ross discography; you won’t find it on her collection Greatest Hits: The RCA Years or her box set Forever Diana: Musical Memoirs or anywhere else besides this original album. Whether that’s because Diana doesn’t really like the song, or because someone else doesn’t, I have no idea…but it’s too bad, because it’s not actually a bad single. The song has been criticized over the years by many writers for the lyrics, which don’t seem to mean anything — but let’s be honest, “Mirror Mirror” is just as abstract, and songs like “My Old Piano” and “Muscles” may have had a clear subject matter, but were pretty silly. “Pieces Of Ice” is really a song more concerned with atmosphere, and opens with a perfect, solo organ chord that sets an appropriately chilly tone. The tune is led by a driving synthesizer beat and features some nice, but never overdone, electric guitar work; Diana’s vocal, meanwhile, is incredibly focused. Her work here is actually pretty outstanding, in that she’s projecting both a somber and sexy vibe at the same time; this is a far more mature and accomplished vocal than on her hit from the year before, “Muscles,” in which her similarly hushed vocal came off as more of a one-note joke. She provides her own backing vocals on the chorus, and the layering of her voice works as well here as it did on earlier hits like “Why Do Fools Fall In Love.” Perhaps the bottom line is that this record is just too low-key to have been a massive success for Diana; again, it’s not too far removed from the next year’s “Swept Away” or the earlier “Mirror Mirror,” but those songs feature far more dynamic melodies and vocal performances from Miss Ross. “Pieces Of Ice,” however, is a song that’s supposed to sound cold (as the title conveys) and sparse, and thus her performance is perfectly pitched.
5. Let’s Go Up: This is the album’s very best song, and really is one of the best singles of Diana’s RCA years; it was released as the third single from Ross, but basically bombed, stalling in the lower reaches of the top 100. The only explanation is that by this time, there was really no interest left in the album from the public, and both Diana and RCA were probably over it, too. This, however, is one of the saddest cases of RCA losing a major hit on Diana. “Let’s Go Up” is a classy, shimmering mid-tempo number with a gorgeous and powerful lead vocal; it’s case where producer Gary Katz’s more low-key, jazzy sound and Diana’s emotional interpretive abilities come together perfectly. Diana’s performance here is one of the very best of her work from the 1980s, as the song makes full use of her range; she mines her lower register to sound wise and relaxed on the verses, but the choruses build to exciting heights in which she does some powerful singing on par with her late-70s work with Ashford & Simpson. Notice, for example, the way she nails the high note on the word “up” during the lyric “…is up to us….” at 2:00 in; this is the sort of assured singing that had been sorely missing on Diana’s previous album, Silk Electric. Really the entire final minute of running time is pretty thrilling; Diana’s voice has an energy as she ad-libs that is irresistable and demonstrates just what a skillful singer she is. Most exciting of all is that when performing this song live on television in both her Central Park concerts and especially on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” Diana sounded just as good; what a shame that it didn’t become a hit…it would have been a great addition to future live shows.
6. Love Or Loneliness: After five songs in a row from Gary Katz, production duties on this one were handled by Ray Parker, Jr., who also wrote it. The singer/songwriter/guitarist is, of course, best known the hit song “Ghostbusters” from the movie, but had spent the early 80s leading the group Raydio, and this song is strikingly similar to his 1981 smash with the group, “A Woman Needs Love (Just Like You Do)” — the guitar line here is pretty much lifted directly from that earlier hit. That’s not a bad thing; the song fits Diana well in that it’s a “story-song,” which means her interpretive, story-telling gifts are on full display. The easy-listening, light-funk tone is also a nice match for Miss Ross, whose vocal is warm and inviting and relaxed. This isn’t the most memorable song on the album, but it’s a great album track — and since Diana sounds nice vocally on it and the following song, it hints at what might have been a strong partnership with Ray Parker, Jr. had the two teamed up again.
7. Up Front: The second Ray Parker, Jr. tune in a row, this is the stronger of the two and was eventually released as the album’s second single, though it only barely hit the R&B charts. It’s a good song, but seems like a very odd choice for a single; the rock-themed tune isn’t the catchiest on the album, and really doesn’t sound like a “Diana Ross song,” which is probably why it didn’t do very well (after “Pieces Of Ice” only found moderate success, it seems like it would have been a wiser move to release either “Let’s Go Up” or “You Do It,” which are both much more accessible and classic Diana songs, and strong ones at that). That said, again, it’s a great addition to the album, and features a dynamic performance from Diana, who gets to really dig into the lyrics and melody here and show some vocal muscle again. Though it’s not produced by Gary Katz, the clean production and the addition of synthesizers along with the rocking guitars help it to feel like a natural fit with the earlier songs on the album. Back to the lead vocal, repeated listens really reveal just how much Miss Ross was pushing herself here; listen to her belt out the words “Get it straight!” at around 1:55 and again at 2:55 — this is some strong singing.
8. Girls: The album ends with a song both co-written and produced by Miss Ross herself, her first production on this album after handling just about every track on both Why Do Fools Fall In Love and Silk Electric. Though many have written off this song as a weak and unnecessary addition to Ross, I think it fits in well with the rest of the album, and is certainly better than most of the songs she produced on her previous LP (i.e. “Love Lies” and “In Your Arms”). The frantic, jazzy guitar line and the jamming percussion work are both as accomplished as anything else on the album, and while the lyrics don’t make much sense, Diana offers a confident vocal that once again allows her to display some range and power. Certainly this song isn’t strong enough to have been pulled for single release, and is more dense than the clean-sounding tracks at the beginning of the album, but it’s a fine way to end the LP and stands as one of the more interesting Diana Ross compositions.
As noted above, Diana Ross spent most of 1983 in the public eye for reasons other than this album; by 1984, attention had shifted to her fourth RCA album, Swept Away, which featured three top 20 hits (including the astounding #1 R&B hit “Missing You,” one of her best vocal performances of all time)…thus, everything Ross just slipped out of the public eye. This really is a shame, because Ross is the most complete album she turned out while signed to RCA, and is her most cohesive set since 1980’s diana. There’s a feeling to Ross that carries through the entire album; whether you like or hate that feeling, it’s there in every single song. Personally, I like it; the album’s not as immediately grabbing as warmer works like Baby It’s Me or Surrender, but there’s a lot of technical skill here that can be appreciated the more the album is listened to, and it sounds far better today than most of the other albums she worked on during the 1980s.
Final Analysis: 4/5 (Diana’s “Up Front” Again)
Choice Cuts: “Let’s Go Up,” “You Do It,” “Pieces Of Ice”