“And when at last I find you, your song will fill the air…”
In the wake of 1999’s Every Day Is A New Day, Diana Ross’s recording career pretty much ceased to exist. The new millennium brought some exciting new re-issues — like 1970’s Diana Ross and 1981’s To Love Again — which contained previously unreleased tracks from the vaults and alternate vocal takes, and the world finally got to hear her shelved early 70s jazz album, Blue. But fans craving new studio material from Miss Ross were left waiting…and waiting…and waiting. 2005 brought two notable new tracks; “I’ve Got A Crush On You” — a duet with Rod Stewart from his Thanks For The Memory…The Great American Songbook IV — which ended up in the top 20 of the Adult Contemporary chart, and “When You Tell Me That You Love Me,” a remake of her 1991 #2 UK hit, this time performed with the group Westlife and, amazingly, again hitting #2 in the UK.
The success of those songs — along with the strong sales and reviews of Blue — proved audiences could be receptive to a new album by Miss Ross, even though her studio albums of the 90s hadn’t been big hits in the states. And the release of I Love You (in January of 2007, though it hit shelves months earlier overseas) proved that; it debuted on the Billboard 200 at #32 — far higher than anything since 1984’s Swept Away — and hit the top 20 of the R&B Albums chart. A press release from Manhattan/EMI Music Marketing trumpeted: “The #32 debut with first-week sales totaling 21,222 marks Ms. Ross’ highest chart debut and strongest sales week in the SoundScan era.” The album’s release was promoted with several notable television appearances, including a well-received stint as a “mentor” to contestants on “American Idol” and a memorable night with host James Lipton on “Inside The Actors Studio,” on which she both talked extensively about her career and performed several songs. Sales also weren’t hurt, of course, by the simultaneous release of the film Dreamgirls, a fictional account of the Supremes which revived interest in the group.
Despite the album’s chart success, reviews were mixed, with many writers less-than-thrilled about Diana’s choice to record an album of love song covers (All Music Guide’s Jeff Tamarkin wrote that Miss Ross “sleepwalks through a mishmash of seemingly randomly chosen love songs”). Indeed, of I Love You‘s 15 tracks (16 total recorded, as the US and international versions feature a slightly different lineup), only one song is an original, and many have been recorded dozens of times before. But to say she’s “sleepwalking” here — or that the lineup is “random” — is to clearly miss the point of the entire project. Certain songs, like “I Want You” and “To Be Loved,” have a deep connection to Diana’s history, and some of the vocal performances here are among her most heartfelt ever. I Love You is not an innovative album, and doesn’t break any new ground in terms of Diana’s artistry or career. But for a woman who hadn’t really released any new material for the better part of a decade, Miss Ross often sounds as assured and confident as ever.
1. Remember: It’s fitting that I Love You opens (and closes) with Harry Nilsson’s “Remember,” and very deliberate, too. In interviews, Diana Ross stated it was while listening to this song and looking through family photos that she got the idea to record an album of classic love songs. And the idea of Diana listening to Harry Nilsson makes sense, too, given that she devoted an entire segment of her one-woman Broadway show, An Evening With Diana Ross, to songs from his album The Point! in 1976. Ross and producer Peter Asher create a lush, dreamy tone for this opening number, echoing the song’s lyrics (which often repeat the word “dream”). Miss Ross begins the song with a hushed, sensitive delivery; the years that have passed between this and her previous studio album are evident in her deepened, huskier tone. This is not a bad thing at all; the lower end of her range is beautifully smooth, as is evidenced when she sings the words “…is a place from long ago…” at 32 seconds in. This is the voice of a wise, mature woman, which adds to the credibility of the song and makes it far more poignant for listeners, many of whom would have aged right along with Diana Ross. At 1:26, as she begins the “Dream…love is only in a dream…” refrain, she gets to push up into the higher end of her range, and the good news is that it hasn’t been weakened by the passing of years; there is still that gorgeous purity of tone that has always marked the best of Diana Ross’s ballad performances, though there’s a subtle smokiness now that adds an interesting shading to her sound. “Remember” is an interesting composition in that it’s not a traditionally structured song; therefore, it’s not as immediately memorable as something like “Lovely Day” or “More Today Than Yesterday.” It is, however, a mood piece, and the bittersweet atmosphere that Miss Ross creates with her voice and Peter Asher creates with the instrumental track is very effective and successful.
2. More Today Than Yesterday: An absolutely fabulous recording — as bouncy and joyful as anything Miss Ross had recorded in years — this one was produced by Steve Tyrell and is a remake of a 1960s hit by The Spiral Staircase. Diana Ross used this song in several of her television appearances to promote the album, and turned in an especially energetic and successful performance of it on “The Late Show With David Letterman.” The production here is extremely similar to that of the original 1960s recording, and thus it takes Miss Ross right back to her classic pop roots; she clearly has an affinity and a gift for such music, and thus this is a natural for her. Her vocal performance is one of the best on the album, if not the very best — her work on the verses is cool and controlled, her voice sliding down to satisfying low notes (“…what day it was…”) before erupting into the powerful refrain, during which she literally shouts with joy (“…but darlin’…not as much as TOMORROW!”). In fact, the catchy chorus here allows Miss Ross to display more power than she had on much of her work in the 1990s; she is really belting here and sounds phenomenal doing so, nailing each note with the precision of a surgeon. “More Today Than Yesterday” is truly an incredible song in that it really brings Diana Ross “full circle,” taking her back to the finger-popping light soul that made her a star more than 40 years earlier; she handles the song with the same kind of attention to enunciation and vocal clarity that she would have in the 1960s, but also bring a sense of confidence and wisdom now that she couldn’t have delivered in her youth. This is a standout track not only on this latest album, but also in the whole of the Diana Ross discography; it’s magic.
3. I Want You: This song was a hit for Marvin Gaye back in 1976, but the connection between it and Miss Ross runs deeper than the fact that it was a Motown release. The co-writer on “I Want You” is Arthur “T-Boy” Ross, Diana’s younger brother, who wrote several songs at Motown and even recorded a solo album for the label in 1979. T-Boy Ross passed away in 1996, making Diana’s choice to record the song a tribute to her late brother. Produced again by Steve Tyrell, this is a sexy, adult presentation, smartly retaining the disco feel of Gaye’s original without sounding dated or campy. Tyrell’s production is mainly driven by an electric guitar and soaring background vocals, which perfectly complement Diana’s passionate reading of the lyrics. Here again, there’s a smokiness to Miss Ross’s voice that works well with the theme of composition, and she sounds self-assured and sexy without it ever becoming forced. There’s a lot of “oooh-ing” and “aaaah-ing” by Miss Ross, too, something she really hadn’t done much of since her work with Holland-Dozier-Holland in the 1960s; thankfully, she’s lost none of her innate feel for when flourishes like these are appropriate. Listen to her work beginning around 2:40, as she croons, “Oh…don’t you wanna care? It’s lonely out there…” — there’s a power and an urgency to her vocal that adds some much-needed excitement to an album that’s overwhelmingly loaded with ballads. Her high-note wail at 3:37 is beautifully done, as is the follow up around 4:02; this willingness to push her voice and go for the note is something she really hadn’t done much of since 1989’s Workin’ Overtime. “I Want You” is superb latter-day Ross, a wonderful tribute not only to her brother, but the abundance of dance classics produced by Motown in the 1970s.
4. I Love You (That’s All That Really Matters): The set’s title song is also its only original tune, penned by Miss Ross’s background singer Fred White. Because White had been backing up Diana for years, he clearly had a keen understanding of her voice, and this song certainly suits her range and abilities perfectly. Perhaps it makes sense that this song strongly resembles in both structure and sound “It’s Hard For Me To Say” from 1987’s Red Hot Rhythm & Blues — that song was written by Luther Vandross, another man who’d studied Ross’s voice for years and certainly knew how to make it sound its best. This is a lovely R&B ballad, simple and straightforward in its lyric and message (“I love you for who you are…and that’s all that really matters”), and because Diana’s gift as a vocalist is selling lyrics with honesty, the song comes off as an extremely sincere message to her listeners. The melody allows her to sing comfortably in the “middle range” of her soprano, while also stretching higher during the “…that’s all that really matters” refrain. The purity of her tone here really is astounding; she’s as pitch-perfect and crystal-clear as she’d been on the songs of Blue, released the year before but recorded in the early 70s. At more than five minutes in length, the song takes its time and shuffles along slowly but deliberately, which gives Miss Ross a nice opportunity to do some ad-libbing toward the end; her “I love you…I do, I do…” starting around 4:20 is beautifully relaxed and intimate, as though the listener is standing in the recording booth with Miss Ross. This is a worthy title track, and could have been serviced to Adult R&B radio and probably gotten some spins.
5. What About Love: One of the most beautiful, haunting performances of Diana Ross’s career, this is a song that she probably could have only recorded at this point in her life. The astonishing authenticity with which she interprets the lyrics are doubtless the result of more than sixty years of life experience; every bit of joy and pain she’s been dealt in her life seem to come through in her deeply-felt performance. The song itself is a beautifully written essay on love, penned in part by the brilliant Brenda Russell (who’d delivered some stunners for Miss Ross on 1995’s Take Me Higher) for the Broadway musical The Color Purple (which was produced by Diana’s friend Oprah Winfrey). The entire production here is handled so delicately that it’s almost impossible to breathe while listening, for fear of missing the abundance of subtle nuances in both the instrumental and in the vocal performance. The musical track produced by Peter Asher is sensitive and classy, with an almost rustic sound in the piano and cello that give the song an intimate, timeless feel; that said, the star here is the woman delivering the lead vocal. Listen to Diana begin the song, her voice deep and controlled, singing the lyrics, “Is that me…who’s floating away?” — there seems to be a well of emotion that the singer is just holding a bay. Later, at 2:19, she sings the line, “Will I see a new world in your eyes?” with such a heartbreaking wistfulness that she almost seems to be defying her listeners not to be swept away by the moment. Never in her storied career has Miss Ross sounded more invested in a set of lyrics; for a singer who is known as a gifted interpreter of other people’s compositions, she certainly takes that gift to a whole new level here. This is a moving masterpiece that should have won Diana that competitive Grammy award that she’d been denied for so long; I would wager that there was not a more honest vocal performance released that year.
6. The Look Of Love: During the promotion of I Love You, Diana mentioned several times her respect for the songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David; she’d recorded many over the years, starting with several during her stint with the Supremes (including “The Look Of Love,” which went unreleased for decades) all the way through 1994, with “What The World Needs Now Is Love” on A Very Special Season. “The Look Of Love” is one of the duo’s most famous compositions, having first appeared in 1967 in the film Casino Royale (with a soundtrack vocal by Dusty Springfield), and subsequently being covered by dozens of popular artists. Miss Ross’s version opens with a lovely Spanish guitar intro — one of the best instrumental moments on the album, credited to Heitor Pereira — before giving way to a shuffling, Latin-inspired track with lovely orchestral strings which ebb and flow in the background. Diana’s vocal is breathy and relaxed; though she sounds slightly less engaged here than she has on the previous five tracks, the coolness works well for the song, giving it a remoteness that plays well into the lyrics (which are, after all, about non-verbal love). Though this is one of the most oft-recorded songs Miss Ross chose to include on I Love You, this is a slickly produced work that doesn’t feel tired or unnecessary, which is in itself an accomplishment.
7. Take My Breath Away: Sadly, after six very good tracks, I Love You reaches its first dud with “Take My Breath Away,” Diana’s version of the 1980s hit by Berlin. This wasn’t included on the international release of the album (“Crazy Little Thing Called Love” was featured in its place), which indicates perhaps executives even knew this wasn’t the strongest work. In any case, this is an example of extremely lackluster production really sinking a track; the backing here sounds like it was created on an outdated computer by someone playing around with a music program — it is almost totally devoid of life or inspiration. Unfortunately, Diana Ross doesn’t do a whole lot to liven up the proceedings; her performance is fine, but she doesn’t sound particularly invested and really seems to be just singing to get through the song. She’s more emotive during the final minute of the tune, but by this time it’s a little too late; the song sort of crashes to a finish with a shaky final few notes from Diana and a distinctly discordant musical track behind her. To cut Peter Asher and Diana Ross a little slack, the song itself isn’t a particularly conducive one to covers; “Take My Breath Away” stands as a song very much of its era (it was originally part of the Top Gun soundtrack in 1986) and was so ubiquitous that it’s very difficult to erase the memory of the original’s sound. Whatever the ultimate reason, this just doesn’t even come close to the quality of the songs that precede it.
8. Lovely Day: Thank goodness Miss Ross and producers bounce right back after the misstep of “Take My Breath Away” with a cool, modern version of Bill Withers’s “Lovely Day.” This song was first a hit in 1977, and Diana’s reason for wanting to record it is quoted in the Manhattan/EMI press release: “This song makes me dance. Everyone wants a lovely day.” The song is given a smooth jazz/easy listening arrangement, more polished but less soulful than that of the original; the easy listening vibe veers a little close to a Muzak sound at times, but thankfully sidesteps that trap with some great instrumental touches and a nice, low-key performance by Miss Ross. The track opens with an interesting stuttering electronic intro before Brandon Fields’s accomplished saxophone work takes over; Diana’s vocal, meanwhile, opens with a trademark sigh (imagine a “Love Hangover 2007” moment) and continues with a cool efficiency that nicely matches the staccato feel of the track. Diana’s voice is also very prominent on the background vocal arrangement (the repetition of “lovely day”), which is a great touch and reminiscent of her early RCA work, when she often provided her own backgrounds. This song probably could have been sent to smooth jazz/adult R&B radio and gotten some play; it’s certainly hard not to sing-along with the song when it comes on.
9. Only You: A slowed-down, simmering version of the 1950s hit song, which was originally made famous by The Platters. Steve Tyrell’s production here has a nice, warm sound; the ghostly background vocals (woven expertly into the track) and some jazzy keyboard work help keep it from becoming laborious, despite the song being so slow it basically lacks a beat. Diana’s vocal is interesting; at times she comes off as a little too affected, such as her “o-O-nly you…” at 1:13, and her final, big “You!” at 3:39 feels a little wobbly, but there’s also some expert work here. Diana’s delivery of “You’re my dream come true…” at 3:26 is reminiscent of her work from the early 70s; there’s something about the vitality in her voice as she belts the word “you’re” that calls to mind her passionate work on 1970’s Diana Ross and 1971’s Surrender. There’s also a beautiful smoothness to her low notes that really shows off a new, sultry layer to Diana’s voice; her “You are my destiny…” at 1:35 is a perfect example of that. In the liner notes to this CD, Miss Ross writes, “…’Only You’ reminded me of a time when we’d listen to records, slow dancing with one light glowing from above.” The intent here was clearly to create a song that brings that image to life, and in that case, it is successful. It lacks some fire and doesn’t match the depth of “What About Love” nor the crispness of “I Love You (That’s All That Really Matters),” but there are some nice moments of soulfulness to Diana’s work that makes this a worthwhile effort and a nice listen.
10. To Be Loved: Another one of the most meaningful selections on I Love You is “To Be Loved,” a song co-written by Berry Gordy, Jr. for Jackie Wilson back in 1957. Not that is probably needs to be said, but Gordy is the founder of Motown Records, the man who nurtured her career from the 1960s until she left the label in 1980, and the father of her oldest daughter, Rhonda. Being that Gordy is such an important part of Diana’s life and career, it makes total sense that she’d include a song with a connection to him on this album (and it should be noted that the song is also clearly meaningful to Gordy, as he titled his memoirs after it). The song is arranged pretty faithfully to Wilson’s original version, with a shuffling “sock-hop” beat; unfortunately, the production by Steve Tyrell also leans too far toward the “easy listening” spectrum, killing any opportunity for the song to have an authentic, soulful feel. The All Music Guide review unfairly points the finger toward Diana in its review, stating, “Ross takes Jackie Wilson’s “To Be Loved” and bleeds the soul from it” — in truth, Miss Ross’s vocal is full of soul and feeling, but the blaring sax is just plain overpowering and makes it difficult for the lead vocal to dominate the song, as it should. Taken on its own, this really is one of the more impressive vocals on the entire album; she is clear and deliberate in her delivery, with some nice vocal runs (especially at :58) adding a little color and variation. The final verse beginning at around 3:00 into the running time is perhaps the best example of Diana’s power here; she builds and builds until her jubilant “Oh…OH! What a feeling…” at 3:30 brings the song to its musical climax. Though she would have been served much, much better by a less polished, rougher musical track (a live band accompanying her would have been a nice change), it’s hard to fault Miss Ross here, as she really does serve up a fine performance.
11. I Will: An absolute gem of a song, this is one of the clear standouts of I Love You, a shimmering, acoustic ballad that is perfect in its simplicity. “I Will” is a song written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney and included on the 1968 album The Beatles. It’s appearance here may have something to do with the fact that producer Peter Asher was once in charge of A&R at Apple Records, the label founded by the Beatles in ’68. Whatever the case, it’s a brilliant addition; it’s not as immediately recognizable as many of the other songs, and thus doesn’t conjure up comparisons to other recordings of it (in the way “Take My Breath Away” does, for example). The arrangement here is just lovely; there’s a refreshing sweetness to the sound of recording that is a pleasure to listen to, and Diana respects that feeling with the simplicity of her vocal. The soulful flourishes and “deep digging” of the previous track are completely gone; here, Miss Ross sings with a purposeful crispness, plucking each word softly just as the strings of the guitar are being gently plucked. Though she sounds mature and wise in her tone, there’s a subtle playfulness to her performance that gives it a child-like edge; in that way, it’s vaguely reminiscent of something like “When We Grow Up,” her recording from the 1972 album Free To Be…You And Me. The song itself is very brief — running just under three minutes — but there’s not a wasted moment here; this is just perfection from start to finish, a real treat.
12. This Magic Moment: The second of two real low points on I Love You, this one rivals “Take Me Breath Away” in its lack of inspiration and weak production. While some of the tracks thus far have dipped their toes into the Muzak pool, this one dives in headfirst; Diana Ross sounds as though she’s singing in an elevator, with the generic, glossy backing track just completely murdering the song. There is a mind-boggling abundance of strange sounds included here, from the reedy wind-instrument opening to the odd robotic voice that underscores Diana on the “…sweeter than wine…” sections. The instrumental break, meanwhile, sounds like the cheap computer recreation of an actual recording; it is just completely unsophisticated. The best that can be said for Miss Ross here is that she sounds relaxed; unfortunately, that relaxation doesn’t come across as effortlessness so much as boredom. Being that I Love You has a relatively high track count, it’s a shame someone didn’t decide to leave this one off; its absence would have strengthened the overall project.
13. You Are So Beautiful: Your tolerance for this song will probably depend on your tolerance for other versions of it; “You Are So Beautiful” tends to be a song that people either love or hate, and it’s certainly has never lacked in airplay. Written and recorded by Billy Preston, singer Joe Cocker covered the song in 1974 and made it a huge hit; it’s since been referenced countless times in movies and television programs, and played at proms and weddings ad nauseam. The good news here is that Miss Ross’s version is actually very restrained and listenable; the production is mercifully not overdone, and features a well-balanced mix of low-key piano and strings. Diana’s performance, meanwhile, is deep and soulful; she doesn’t do any adorning, and lets the lyrics “breathe” and speak for themselves. Her one embellishment is pushing the last two words an octave higher, and her “to me” is a beautifully done finale. In a way, the feel of “You Are So Beautiful” is analogous to her performance of “Forever Young” on 1984’s Swept Away; on both songs, Miss Ross takes an optimistic lyric and tinges it with sadness in her delivery, lending the song a bittersweet feeling that it otherwise probably wouldn’t have. For my money, this version of “You Are So Beautiful” is the most successful of any recording of it; it’s easy for the lyrics to sound syrupy and almost disingenuous, but there’s an emotional honesty in this rendition that really elevates it.
14. Always And Forever: The final full song on I Love You is a lush, stunning version of the 1977 hit “Always And Forever” by Heatwave, a song that was also famously covered by Luther Vandross and gained him a Grammy nomination in 1994. Miss Ross’s vocal here was more than worthy of a Grammy nomination, too; this is as good as her voice sounds on the entire album and, really, as good as she’d sounded in years (in his book Diana Ross: A Biography, J. Randy Taraborrelli writes that it “probably rates with the best of her ballad performances” ). The arrangement here is highlighted by gorgeous violin and piano work, creating an atmospheric and luxuriant background for Miss Ross. After the hushed, restrained delivery on “You Are So Beautiful,” Diana opens up her voice here, powerfully pushing her upper register at the end of each refrain; listen to her work beginning at 2:36, as she passionately sings the lyrics, “Take time to tell me, you really care…and we’ll share tomorrow together…” — this is singing at its highest caliber, a stunning mix of technique and feeling. But beyond the showier moments, Miss Ross’s work on the verses is smooth and controlled, her deeper notes as clean and precise as glass. Mr. Taraborrelli seems to be on mark with his assessment; this really is the quintessential Diana Ross ballad, as perfectly suited to her voice as well-known hits like “Theme From Mahogany” and “Endless Love.” Of any song on I Love You, this one really should have been pushed as a single; had it been serviced to Adult R&B and Adult Contemporary radio and given the right kind of attention, it surely could have equalled the success her duet with Rod Stewart had in 2005, if not bettered it. For anyone whose appreciation of Diana Ross has dimmed over the years, this is required listening; this song proves Miss Ross is still one of the most gifted vocalists of all time.
15. Remember Reprise: A brief reprise of the album’s first track closes things out; this is a nice way to bring the project full circle and finish it off gracefully.
Crazy Little Thing Called Love: This track appeared on international versions of I Love You in place of “Take My Breath Away” — being that it’s really the only true uptempo song other than “More Today Than Yesterday,” it’s strange that executives in the states decided to do without it. Having another energetic song definitely helps break up the album a little bit and give it some variety, even if this one isn’t nearly as succesful as “More Today…” The issue here is not at all with Miss Ross — her performance is vibrant and fun, and she sounds a lot like she did on several songs from 1987’s Red Hot Rhythm & Blues. The production, unfortunately, is a mess; it opens with a garish marching band sound that never lets up, and the instruments all sound insanely discordant. The one other bright spot here is the quick guitar solo by Queen’s Brian May — Queen, of course, took the song to #1 back in 1980. His involvement is a nice touch, and it’s fun to hear Diana having a good time in the studio, but this really isn’t a standout track.
Seeing Diana Ross back in the top 40 of the Billboard Album charts was a huge thrill for fans in 2007; after the commercial disappointments of such stellar albums as Take Me Higher and Every Day Is A New Day, the success of this project seemed not only deserved, but sorely overdue. I Love You is not as consistent as either of those albums, but it is a nice, cohesive work that features some fine vocal performances, and a couple of absolutely stellar ones. In some cases, the production lets her down — a few of the songs just don’t have the kind of lush, high-end feel that a legend like Diana Ross deserves — and while most of the song choices are solid, a few (“Take My Breath Away” and “This Magic Moment,” I’m looking at you…) just seem like total throw-aways. But the great news is that these faults don’t sink the album — the bright spots here are so bright that they elevate this album to being an essential part of her discography.
Final Analysis: 4/5 (A “Lovely” Album)
Choice Cuts: “Always And Forever,” “More Today Than Yesterday,” “What About Love”