Classic Albums Revisited: Diana Ross

The soul diva’s legendary 1976 album – a project that feels thrown together but remains a classic recording and features her finest musical moment.

The second self-titled album from Diana Ross – known to fans as The Black Album – was first released in 1976, and more recently was re-released as a two-disc special edition – the musical answer to the extras-laden DVD, with 28 extra tracks including singles, alternate versions, rarities and an interview, along with a 24-page booklet. I would be surprised if Diana Ross had the sort of fanatical, must-have-everything following that will snap up every recording made by their idol – it tends to be the province of cult bands rather than mainstream superstars – but I might be wrong. In any case, it’s an impressive package that should be enough of a tipping point for anyone who hasn’t already bought a copy of the album. And if you don’t own this record already, then you should.

Now, I’ve never considered myself to be a Diana Ross fan – much as I admire the work of The Supremes and some of the solo Motown singles, I’m not impressed by divas and their antics, so I’ve generally ignored her output. Listening to this album, I’m thinking that was a mistake.

The original LP is close to being a masterpiece. Moving on from the soul of the Supremes, it’s the work of a more mature artist, as the opening track Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To) attests – an evocative ballad that manages to be ethereal and epic at the same time. The same could be said of I Thought It Took a Little Time (But Today I Fell in Love), but just as you settle down to the album being a collection of impressive easy listening, things suddenly get a lot funkier. Love Hangover is an eight-minute track that deceptively starts out as a soulful and sexy ballad before suddenly lurching into proto-disco. It shouldn’t work, and almost doesn’t, but the cumulative effect is undeniably infectious. There’s real inspiration at work here, and both the breathy, sensuous opening and the pounding second half feel almost as though the whole track has been created specifically for seduction.

After this, the dated, jazz-flavoured Kiss Me Now and middling funk tune You’re Good My Child are a bit of a letdown; the former is the main reason why the album doesn’t quite reach the level of a masterpiece, while the latter, although a solid enough track, feels a little ordinary after what we’ve already heard. It’s a reminder that a great album is more than simply a random selection of great songs; it needs to be sequenced with skill and build up. Ideally, Love Hangover might have been the album’s closing track, a crescendo that leaves the listener on a high. Instead, this LP does feel a little like no one was really thinking of the piece as a whole, perhaps because Ross was seen more as a singles artist.

One Love in My Lifetime is an infectiously grooving, feel-good R&B number, getting things back on track, and things stay impressive with Ain’t Nothing But a Maybe, a soulful ballad that ebbs and flows with a thoroughly catchy chorus. The album ends with sweet romantic ballad After You and an effectively bittersweet cover of Smile (originally an instrumental from Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, and first recorded as a vocal version by Nat King Cole) – a nice enough song but perhaps a bit of a flat way to end a seminal recording.

Of course, the sequencing of an album goes out of the window once you get into special editions. I’ve often wondered why bands who have clearly taken care putting an album together – sometimes with a theme or, dare we say, concept running throughout – are then happy to have B-sides, outtakes and other tracks added to the end of special editions, essentially throwing all that planning out of the water. Of course, we have to assume that most of the people buying these editions are already familiar with the original LP, so perhaps it doesn’t matter that much. As it is, the fact that this album is so haphazardly sequenced might be in its favour for adding stuff onto the end, and in this case, there is so much additional content that the original album is almost dwarfed. Disc one alone contains nine new tracks, doubling the size of the album, and the second CD includes fifteen more tracks, including a sixteen-minute interview with Ross.

The additional material opens up with a handful of singles – the country song Sorry Doesn’t Always Make It Right is the most interesting, if only because it shows the direction Ross may have been pushed in if it wasn’t for this album and the success of  Love Hangover, though the dance remix of One Love in My Lifetime is an interesting folly. There’s a lacklustre cover of Elton John’s Harmony and the funky Sly Stone numbers Le Lo Li and Go Where Your Mind Is, but the rest of the tracks are either alternate cuts, or tracks recorded during this album’s sessions but not used until later – or both, in the case of To Love Again, which appeared on her 1978 album Ross, but here appears with an unheard French language intro. Most of these tracks are not radically different from the released versions, but the alternate version of Love Hangover – also included as a four-minute seven-inch cut-down – is actually even better than the official version – stripped-down, bass-driven and with a single-take vocal rejected from the final cut. It’s thirty seconds longer, and why this version was rejected is a mystery.

Ultimately, this new version doesn’t add much that is essential – arguably, the good stuff could’ve all been fitted onto one disc, leaving the original album as its own thing – but for fans, it is a pretty definitive collection, and quite frankly, it’s worth the upgrade just for that sensational alternative version of Love Hangover. But whichever version of this you eventually go for, any decent music collection will be enhanced by its presence.

DAVID FLINT

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