Album Review: Diana Ross - 'Thank You'
At 77-years-old and over 60 years into one of the most legendary careers in the history of popular music, it should be unsurprising that Diana Ross’s 25th solo studio album, “Thank You,” is not exactly a reinvention.
That Ross wrote the album during the early days of the COVID-19 lockdowns and recorded it at her home studio only reinforces this: at a time when most external stimuli were impractical, she was going to look inward, and “Thank You” was never likely to be, in a career as accomplished as hers, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s best.
That the album was produced by Bleachers’ Jack Antonoff might suggest that “Thank You” would drift into a more stripped-down version of the Diana Ross sound, given his COVID-19 lockdown era-defining production on Taylor Swift’s “folklore.” But Swift had folk tendencies pre-Antonoff and has long had a naturally collaborative approach to music; Diana Ross wanted to make a Diana Ross album. That is neither inherently a good nor bad thing, depending on how you view her solo discography. (It should be said, particularly for those with a more casual relationship with Ross’s career, this album bears no meaningful resemblance to her work with The Supremes.)
Most of the hallmarks of Ross, who hadn’t released a studio album in 15 years, are present: pop ballads, disco-era mid-tempo dance tracks and a seemingly endless string of lyrical allusions to love treated not as a nice thing humans do but as a secularized version of a higher being. Although by no reasonable definition a gospel album, there is an undercurrent of spiritual release emanating from the music, but that release is not of love for a god or even of love for another person, but seemingly of love for the Diana Ross canon.
The fundamental strength of “Thank You” is the presence of Ross’s voice, which has held up (if not in absolute peak form, a reasonable approximation of its former self), but more importantly evokes feelings of intense nostalgia in millions.
While the album’s lead instrument is firing on all cylinders, the songwriting is not up to standard. Ross can make an average song great, but she hasn’t really proven herself able to make a bad song good, which is particularly evident on the ballads in the heart of the album.
This is not to say that there aren’t a handful of choice cuts on “Thank You.” The title track, a fine selection for the album’s lead single, has an almost childlike (in the good sense of the term) chorus that is a bit reminiscent of a post-prime Michael Jackson optimistic tune, which is a bit ironic to proclaim given that, based on Jackson’s biography, he was almost certainly being influenced by Ross. That it has apparently come back around to the originator is a charm.
In terms of pop music that sounds at least semi-contemporary and not like a self-conscious throwback, “Tomorrow” has the kinds of disco beats and poppy club chorus that is undeniably derived from Ross’s solo prime of the mid-to-late 1970s, but which also would fit at home on a modern Dua Lipa song – a classic sound that still resonates rather than sounding like a cultural artifact.
Admittedly, the exuberance of “Tomorrow” is probably at least a little bit informed by the dullness of the tracks which precede it. “The Answer’s Always Love” and “Count On Me” sound like half-hearted attempts at a Broadway ballad, and while the singles “If the World Just Danced” and “I Still Believe” at least attempt to recapture the glory of Ross’s heyday, they are at best perfectly pleasant, expendable swings at a familiar format rather than any sort of modern classic.
If one is a Diana Ross fan already, “Thank You” may be a likable but probably still entirely forgettable chapter in her career arc. But if you are a more casual consumer of Ross’s music, the album probably isn’t going to resonate with you too long after you finish listening to it.