“If you choose the wrong path you will lose, that’s alright…be prepared, you might have to make some sacrifice…”
If, as I wrote in my analysis of Why Do Fools Fall In Love, the RCA years comprised the third act of Diana Ross’s career, then this album could be considered the beginning of Act IV. Diana Ross had not scored a major hit single since “Missing You” in early 1985, and her final two RCA albums (Eaten Alive and Red Hot Rhythm & Blues) were commercial disappointments. Thus, Miss Ross left RCA Records after her sixth album, and made a move that may have surprised many — she went back to Motown. Her former label had, by this time, been sold to MCA Records (now known as Universal Music Group), and Diana not only re-signed as an artist, but also a stockholder in the company. Internationally, her releases would be handled by EMI — this is important, because it meant in the next several years, there would be different versions of her albums domestically and overseas, not to mention a few albums that were never officialy released in the US at all (Greatest Hits Live, A Very Special Season).
Considering that her past few releases hadn’t been huge hits and that she was now back on the label on which she’d created some of the most successful pop/R&B songs of all time, pressure must have been high for Diana Ross to turn out a strong album. Also, in the years between 1987’s Red Hot Rhythm & Blues and this album, Diana’s life had changed dramatically — she’d had two more children. She’s quoted in David Nathan’s The Soulful Divas as saying, “I stayed off work for about a year…I was having my babies, and during that time I spent a lot of time watching BET on television, the kids doing the hip-hop and so on…and, you know, I’m a risk taker” (164). So she decided to take the “risk” and do a similarly youthful, hip-hop influenced album, and turned to a familiar face to help her. Writer/producer Nile Rodgers, of course, is one half of the team who helped created Miss Ross’s blockbuster diana album in 1980, and gave her two of her most enduring hits, “Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out.”
As much as they might have hoped — and as hard as they might have worked — lightning did not strike twice. Workin’ Overtime was not a commercial nor a critical success, with most people focused on the fact that the music (and her image on the album cover) did not fit Diana Ross at all. Despite the fact that most people would rank this among the least successful Diana Ross albums ever, there are some strong moments here and it’s certainly a cohesive album. It really isn’t the disaster that many painted it to be; it is, however, very narrow in focus. Appreciating the album means listening beyond the New Jack Swing beats and dated production, which are so persistent that the songs tend to run together. These songs don’t always fit Miss Ross’s voice; at times she’s forcing herself to hit notes that really just don’t sound very good, not to mention that she’s a melody singer and some of the songs here don’t really feature strong melodies. That said, other tracks reveal a power and range missing from a lot of earlier 80s recordings, which makes it an interesting listen.
1. Workin’ Overtime: Although the album’s title track and first single missed the pop charts completely, it was her biggest R&B hit since 1985’s “Missing You” — hitting #3 on the chart — and was also successful in dance clubs. In terms of the production, this may be the “hardest” song on the album; it’s an angular, tough work that’s light on melody and heavy on beat. As mentioned before, Miss Ross is a great melody singer — she’s a vocalist that generally sticks close to the notes as written, letting her voice glide along as the songwriter intended, interpreting the lyrics with subtlety and intelligence. In the case of a song like “Workin’ Overtime,” there’s not much “gliding” to be done; she’s required to really punch through the noisy and dense instrumental, which is made up of loud, electronic percussion and keyboards. This “punching” results in her voice sounding pretty raw and worn; those who prefer the velvety vocals of a song like “Touch Me In The Morning” probably won’t find much to like about the performance here. Despite not sounding particularly pretty on the song, there is an energy and determination in Diana’s performance that’s compelling; she’s certainly not coasting here, and she hits every single note she reaches for. In retrospect, this was probably the wrong choice for a first single; according to J. Randy Taraborrelli’s Diana Ross: A Biography, Motown had pushed for “Bottom Line” to be released first. I think that would have been a wiser move, as “Bottom Line” makes better use of Diana’s voice atop the more modern beats, and wouldn’t have been as jarring for listeners and longtime fans. Still, as much as this single is disliked in many circles, I wouldn’t call it a failure, and it does sound better today than some of Miss Ross’s other 80s recordings.
2. Say We Can: Ditto everything I said about “Workin’ Overtime” for “Say We Can” — the album’s second track is similarly hard and angular, with Diana pushing her vocals as far as they’ll go, practically shouting during the chorus. As on the previous track, Diana’s performance is full of energy, and I’d say she’s actually more successful here; her voice doesn’t sound as thin and raw on the higher notes, and she holds some nice sustained notes (such as on the chorus, when she sings, “…say we ca-a-a-an”) which reveal that her voice was in pretty good shape during the recording of this LP. Nile Rodgers layers Diana’s voice on the verses, an effect that’s nice in the few moments when she sings a subtle harmony with herself. The production is a little dense and noisy, as on the previous song, which is probably the greatest fault here; it certainly sounds dated today. Some of the lyrics also sound a little too forced and dated; I’m not a huge fan of Diana singing “…take it to the max.” Still, this isn’t a bad song, and purely in terms of Miss Ross’s performance, it’s one of the better inclusions here.
3. Take The Bitter With The Sweet: This song completes a trio of similarly-sounding songs; in a way, it finishes out the first chapter of the album. Also, in a strange way, the three songs follow the arc of a live performance; Diana sounds better and more “warmed up” as they progress, and “Take The Bitter With The Sweet” finds her in the groove and in fine, full voice. She nails what sound like her highest notes yet; she sounds fabulous on the line “…would change the way it feels” at around the one-minute mark (she reaches into the “stratosphere” as Valerie Simpson might say), and does it again 20 seconds later as she belts out, “and I HAVE my faults.” The energetic, impressive vocals here are a joy to listen to; unfortunately, the production here is not. This is perhaps the most “industrial” sounding of the album’s first three songs — clearly Rodgers was taking a page from Janet Jacksons’s recent work here — but the loud, staccato percussion and keyboards don’t sound nearly as accomplished or pleasant as the work Jackson was turning out with producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Had Diana’s vocal rested on a more harmonious bed, this could have been a real album standout.
4. Bottom Line: This is the real album standout; it’s the best song on the album, and one of Diana’s best recordings from the second half of the 1980s. Had this been the album’s first single, it probably could have been an even bigger R&B hit than “Workin’ Overtime” — maybe a #1? — and even made dent on the pop charts. The key to this song’s success is that it is a song; yes, it’s got a strong, youthful, modern beat like the other tunes here, but it’s also got a much stronger melody line that allows Miss Ross to really display her gifts as a vocalist. The biggest difference between this song and the others on the album thus far is that Diana sings in a far lower key; she sounds mature and relaxed on the verses, her voice settling deep into the groove and sounding sexy and confident on lines like “No imitations…give me the real thing…” at 1:15 in. This is also a track that features a more complex music arrangement; again, there’s a strong beat, but there’s also a nice melody line and background vocals that comfortably groove along for the duration of the song. The youthful beat behind a relaxed, soulful vocal make this song a much better fit for the wide audience that Diana clearly wanted to reach with her albums; younger listeners could dance to the song, but her longtime fans could appreciate the good lyrics and great vocal. “Bottom Line” was eventually released as the album’s third single, but didn’t stand a chance at that point; the album had already fallen off the charts. It’s an absolute shame that this wasn’t chosen as the song to kick off the project; had it been the first single released to the listening audience, the fate of the album could have been much different.
5. This House: The album’s best song — “Bottom Line” — is followed by another very strong entry, a modern R&B ballad that gives listeners a break from the strong beats and lets Diana get back to her roots as a crooner of love songs. Written solely by Nile Rodgers, this has the classic feel of one of his songs; if you took away the late-80s synthesizers and replaced them with strings and a muted guitar, “This House” sounds like it could have come from 1980’s diana. The lyrics here speak of a house “built on a foundation of love” — it’s the kind of song Diana Ross clearly enjoys recording; she sounds appropriately wrapped up in the words and the feel of the song. There’s a dreamy feel to her performance that sets it apart from pretty much every other recording on the album, and it’s a nice repreive from her more abrasive work on other tracks. This was another song that eventually got pulled for single release; it ended up only charting in the lower reaches of the R&B listing. Had it been better promoted, or followed a stronger lead single, I think it could have done better; I’m not sure it would have ever been a pop hit, but it’s a nice, soulful song that would have sounded good on radio.
6. Paradise: One of the weakest songs here, “Paradise” is a full-on club song; the intention here is clearly to get people dancing, and perhaps in that respect it’s not a total failure. Unfortunately, it’s one of Diana’s worst performances on the album; her voice sounds weak and thin and really is never given the chance to do anything but raspily sing the repetitive lyrics. Think back to the best dance songs of Diana Ross’s career — songs like “Love Hangover,” “You Were The One,” “The Boss,” and “Swept Away” — though they were intended to get people moving, they also featured great, energetic vocals. Hearing Miss Ross really let loose on something like “The Boss” and “I’m Coming Out” is half the reason those songs are so much fun to dance to; there’s a joy within her that translates to the listener. Here, she might as well not be singing at all; she sounds totally uninspired, not that the weak melody line gave her much to work with.
7. Keep On (Dancin’): The second club-song in a row, this one is a little more challenging than “Paradise,” but still not one of the better songs on the album. Miss Ross is at least given a little more to work with here; the lyrics and melody are more complex, and she gets to show off a little range. That said, this is another tune cut in a very high key, and she sounds like she’s straining quite a bit here to keep up, which robs her voice of a lot of its appeal. As is the case with “Paradise,” this really isn’t a song that’s meant to be a vocal showcase; the instrumental here is clearly far more important to everyone, and it sounds like a pretty typical late 80s/early 90s club song (especially with those repetitive keyboard chords that were so popular in that era). Taken purely on the level of being a dance song, this is an okay inclusion…but it certainly doesn’t so much to further Miss Ross’s reputation as a vocalist.
8. What Can One Person Do: Speaking of high keys — had Diana been able to record “What Can One Person Do” in her mid-range, it might have been one of my favorite songs on the album; this is a soulful, sizzling tune that’s far more melody-driven. However, Miss Ross is straining here — really straining — and her voice really sounds pretty shrill. There’s really never a moment on the song during which she can let her voice rest a little bit; both the verses and chorus require her to really stretch, and it’s all just too much. I do like Diana’s ad-libbing on the backgrounds during the final 30 seconds or so; those nice flourishes could have been a good way to allow Diana to demonstrate her ability to hit higher notes had the rest of the song been cut in a lower key.
9. Goin’ Through The Motions: This song is, to me, the strangest entry, in that it doesn’t quite sound like any of the other songs here — it’s actually far closer in spirit to the work Diana recorded for Eaten Alive (right down to the repeated use of the phrase “love’s on the line”). The good thing about the song is that it adds a little variety to the rest of the proceedings; the bad is that it sounds even more dated than some of the other material. Diana at least gets to sing with a little more subtlety here; she’s not shouting as she had been on the previous track, though the melody here is pretty limited, so it’s not really a great chance for her to show off. The biggest fault with this song, I think, is that it’s just not that memorable; for better or worse, most of the other songs on the album stand out a little more.
10. We Stand Together: Workin’ Overtime ends on a really strong note, with what is probably the best song and performance aside from “Bottom Line.” Like that track, this one is a good example of balancing a youthful feel in the instrumental with a mature, seasoned vocal performance and lyrics that won’t totally turn off Diana’s longtime fans. Miss Ross, from the opening “la la…la la…” sounds much more comfortable in this song than she has on the last several; her voice is stronger on the verses — for example, her “I believe…” at 1:15 in showcases a nice, soulful shading — and when she lets loose on the choruses (reaching way up on “Together we STAND together…”) it sounds far more natural, because she hasn’t been straining and stretching for the entire running time. Allowing her this kind of variety within the track is what makes it so successful; while the vocal on “What Can One Person Do” was way too forced and harsh and the vocal on “Paradise” was so low-key it almost didn’t exist, it seems Ross and Rodgers were able to strike a perfect balance on this song, which makes it a perfect way to end the album.
There are those who write off Workin’ Overtime as an album to be forgotten; admittedly, it’s an experiment with a new sound that isn’t wholly successful. It’s a move by Diana Ross that makes sense, however, when taken into context; she’d been away from the business for two years, and the two albums leading up to this one had underperformed commercially. Under a new record label deal, there’s no doubt that she was “workin’ overtime” herself to come up with a hit; unfortunately, this album was not the answer. Still, the hard work she and Nile Rodgers put in is audible, and makes this album more worthwhile than it might have been otherwise; there’s not one song here on which Diana doesn’t sound like she’s giving 100% (even when, on songs like “Paradise,” the 100% required is pretty lackluster). That’s more than can be said of some of her other work from the 80s, especially certain albums like Eaten Alive and Silk Electric, which featured some tracks on which Miss Ross seemed to be really coasting.
Perhaps the most important result of Workin’ Overtime, though, is that its lack of success pushed Diana back to basics with her next few albums. Rather than take such drastic risks, her Motown albums of the 1990s would remain closer to the tried-and-true Diana Ross formula of songs with strong melodies on which her voice could really shine. Considering her next two studio albums for Motown — The Force Behind The Power and Take Me Higher — really do feature some of her best work ever, maybe we should be a little more appreciative of Workin’ Overtime and what it would lead to.
Final Analysis: 3/5 (Diana’s “Workin'” A Little Too Hard)
Choice Cuts: “Bottom Line,” “We Stand Together,” “This House”