What a wildly varied career Donna Summer has had: from novelty sexpot ("Love to Love You Baby") to disco diva ("MacArthur Park," "Bad Girls") to a kind of New Wave wailer ("The Wanderer"). While discophobes sneered, others who listened to her adrenalized mezzo-soprano on the soaring "Heaven Knows" or the steamy, superb "Hot Stuff" could detect a fine rock & roll sensibility at work. Her development paralleled not only Diana Ross' but also Bob Dylan's: she rose to the top of her musical field, stretched and expanded that field with each of her LPs and eventually threatened to bolt the field entirely.
On her latest, eponymously titled LP, however, the surging synthesizer runs and punchy, precise arrangements of coproducers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte are gone. Instead, at the behest of her record company, Summer has teamed up with Quincy Jones, acclaimed for his work with Michael Jackson. But Donna Summer, the product of the Jones-Summer collaboration, turns out to be a gaudy, cluttered, frantically eclectic album whose high points don't stand a chance against the overblown orchestrations and the poorly chosen material.
Jones has replaced Bellotte-Moroder with, seemingly, everyone and everything. This is an album where an average of twenty people are credited per track; where, on a couple of cuts, two guys play the synthesizer, three others program the synthesizer, and three more do the synthesizer arrangements; where, on the stunningly inappropriate Jon and Vangelis composition "State of Independence," such background vocalists as Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Michael McDonald vie for mikes with the likes of Peggy Lipton and Dyan Cannon.
Other aural atrocities abound. "The Woman in Me," a syrup-sodden ballad, features such tripe as "It's so hard to believe/That I'm feeling so free/To be the woman in me," interrupted with huskily spoken phrases like "I love you so much, babyuh." Come on: this is the woman who leered, "I dialed about a hundred numbers, baby/I'm bound to find somebody home" and made believers of us all. Summer's singing on Billy Strayhorn's classic "Lush Life" is far from the blasphemy that some might have feared; nevertheless, languor is an emotion ill-suited to her abilitiesand she isn't helped any by a cocktail-lounge arrangement that has all the oomph of a lava lamp.
Nothing, though, can adequately prepare one for "Livin' in America," a hellaciously bad piece of Up-with-People jingoism that would be insulting if its clichéd pieties didn't soundunintentionally, mind you like they were straight from Bad Girls: "He had to hustle so he could pay the rent/Played all the aces and now he's president."
"Hustled"? "Played all the aces"? What's this guy president of, anyway?
On the brighter side, the Totofashioned "Love Is Just a Breath Away" pleasantly melds the bass line from "Stayin' Alive" to a Kraftwerk-like drum and synth track. "Love Is in Control (Finger on the Trigger)" percolates as it should, though it's a tad gussied up with Vocoder. Best of the lot is the Bruce Springsteen offering, "Protection," which comes out sounding like, of all things, Abba, especially on the choruses. Except that the Swedes wouldn't have buried Roy Bittan's splendid keyboard attacks in so murky a mix.
It may well be that after seven years the Summer-Bellotte-Moroder combination had run out of steambut Donna Summer is a misstep in a career that has always moved forward. (RS 378)
(Posted: Sep 16, 1982)