It takes a versatile artist to write a No. 1 country hit (1980's "Starting Over Again," for Dolly Parton), simulate an orgasm on a 17-minute disco record (1976's "Love to Love You Baby"), and win a Grammy for an inspirational performance (1983's "He's a Rebel"). Donna Summer has done this and more since releasing her first single, 1971's rock-tinged "Sally Go 'Round the Roses." Her new album, Crayons, is not only her first in 17 years, it's also the first time she's tried to combine her divergent musical interests in one package. It's an admirable effort, yet one that dilutes her talent: Crayons proves that despite Summer's disco roots, these days her strengths lie in other styles.
The big surprise on Crayons is that the album's real highlights aren't the plentiful club cuts, but rather the ones crafted in decidedly more mature styles: "Be Myself Again," a wrenching E: True Hollywood Story of a ballad, and "Slide Over Backwards," on which Summer adopts an entirely unrecognizable country-blues wail over a chugging kick and sly harmonica.
Unfortunately, she can't handle every style shift she attempts. The title track, performed with Ziggy Marley, sounds most out of place. Here Summer addresses the success of reggae-flavored pop artists with a forced Jamaican patois. The singer also sounds dispensable on "Mr. Music," produced by JR Rotem, the man behind Rihanna's hit "S.O.S." The track's vapid chant of "Belly up, belly up, belly up to the bar, boy" — which apparently took four songwriters, including Summer, to craft — would be much better suited to one of Rotem's pop tarts than a singer who turns 60 this year. Even the standout dance offerings on Crayons, such as "Fame (The Game)" and Billboard chart topper "I'm a Fire," are disappointing postscripts in the wake of her innovative work with Italian producer Giorgio Moroder. Their famed collaborations in the '70s, particularly the timeless classics "Love to Love You Baby" and "I Feel Love," set a standard from which a wellspring of R&B, house, and techno songs are still patterned, from the subterranean nightclubs of Berlin to Beyoncé's outré anthems. These new club tunes, by contrast, sound more imitative than innovative, though they are not as safe as, say, "She Works Hard for the Money."
Crayons shows that Summer hasn't lost her willingness to experiment with different genres. After more than three decades, though, she is still at her best when she colors outside the lines of public expectation.Read interviews with artists on Donna Summer's influence on dance music.