The singer’s first album in 15 years casts a fond glance back at the vintage sounds she made her name with, but a few new songs—including a Jack Antonoff production—bring her back to the present day.
Diana Ross’ last studio album would have been no way for a musical icon to bow out. I Love You, released in 2006 to widespread indifference, was a collection of under-heated covers (and one new song) that seemed to have been picked at random out of the romantic songbook—from “Take My Breath Away” to the Beatles’ “I Will”—with little sense of cohesion. It was no wonder that Ross sounded distracted as she made her way through an hour’s worth of plasticky, gift-card soul.
Thank You, Ross’ 25th studio album, may not be up there with her very best work—those immortal Motown singles with the Supremes, her buttery smooth 1970s solo records, or the Chic-assisted disco glory of 1980’s Diana—but, by gracefully revisiting these eras while keeping a sparkling eye on the future, it offers a timely reminder of the vast pop smarts and emotional range that made Ross the diva’s diva. The title has a faint ring of finality; if, God forbid, this should prove to be Ms. Ross’ last studio album, then it would be a fitting tribute to one of the most formidable careers in American musical history.
That may sound alarmist. But it is hard to escape the notion of endings on an album that often feels like a long goodbye, which Ross dedicates to “all of you, the listeners.” When she says, “I love you,” at the end of “Beautiful Love,” her voice tingling with quiet emotion, it feels as if she is bidding adieu to the fans who have followed her since she made her recorded debut with the Supremes in 1960.
Musically, too, Thank You carries a distinct whiff of nostalgia. At times, the abrupt transitions between genres suggest Ross’ life flashing before the listener’s eyes, as she moves from silken soul (“All Is Well”) to slinky show tunes (“Count on Me”), 1990s R&B (“Let’s Do It”), and disco (the title track). There’s even a nod to the classic Motown pop stomp in the horns that light up the intro to “Tomorrow.”
These nods to the past glow with the quiet satisfaction of a job well done; they’re era-appropriate and perfectly unchallenging. “All Is Well” blows by in a sugary cloud of funk-lite strings, while “Count on Me” has the warmth of a cup of cocoa at the end of a long day. It helps that Ross is in fantastic voice throughout. She may be slightly bereft of the power that once blew the roof off “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” but her newly vulnerable tone works wonders, adding pathos to the modern Motown torch song of “Just in Case.” (Although whoever decided to use Auto-Tune on “In Your Heart” really should have a word with their ears.)
The best songs on Thank You are those where Ross stretches her wings. "I Still Believe” and “Tomorrow” show that the Motown veteran is very much at home in the world of electronic music—perhaps no surprise, given her history with disco. “I Still Believe,” produced by Jack Antonoff, starts like a show tune, all stirring piano and soft-lipped brass, before abruptly turning into a disco-house stomper, an electrifying transition that makes you want to climb atop a baby-grand piano, waving your dress shoes in the air. “Tomorrow,” meanwhile, blasts its Motown horns into fantastically odd new orbits, combining a filtered breakbeat with a pounding drum line and serpentine bass, like a bastard pop offshoot of shapeshifting UK pop act Girls Aloud.
Whether Ross continues along these bold new paths is perhaps less important than the fact that she is still creating new paths to follow. On Thank You, Diana Ross’ musical star shines strong after six decades of inspiration, offering signs of renaissance even as she teases tender farewells.
Buy: Rough Trade