People have selective memories. During a recent appearance on XM Radio’s Artist Confidential, Donna Summer teased an audience member about his comment that he started noticing her “down-to-earth” (i.e., not dance-oriented) songs in the 1980s. His assumption was that Summer’s heyday in the 1970s was a non-stop whirl through disco wonderland. The reality is that Donna Summer had always recorded ballads and experimented with different styles on albums like Love to Love You Baby (1975) and Live and More (1978). Because listeners were so enraptured by the disco tracks, the “earthier” songs were often overlooked. This particular postulation indicates why Crayons might confound individuals who equate Summer only with “Last Dance” and “I Feel Love”.
The core theme of Crayons is variety. Upon close inspection, this is not a new phenomenon for a Donna Summer album, as any well-worn copy of Bad Girls (1979) could attest. Crayons brazenly flaunts its collage of sounds. It’s a remarkable effort given that artists of Summer’s era are now expected to go the standards route, re-record their past glories, or stick to what “they know best.” That might be good business for clueless record companies, but it’s death for an artist. On Crayons, Summer challenges the current paradigm with a dozen songs that emphasize her range as a singer and songwriter. No less than seven producers shape the album’s 12 original tracks (13 on the European edition). This serves a twofold purpose — to keep Summer contemporary, while affording her plenty of opportunities to exercise her boundless creativity.
Greg Kurstin (Pink) and Toby Gad (Fergie) each helm three songs that comprise the most compulsively listenable material on Crayons. Co-written with Summer and Danielle Brisebois, Kurstin’s tracks boast an artillery of heavy beats dressed in wildly different music styles. The chant-driven “Stamp Your Feet” opens the album and speaks truth to Summer’s indefatigable spirit, while “Crayons” employs a pseudo-dance hall rhythm and a cameo by co-writer/guest vocalist Ziggy Marley to underscore its celebration of cultural harmony. “Drivin’ Down Brazil” nods towards samba with an inspired performance by Summer. Kurstin scales the production back in the verses to really highlight the sheen of Summer’s voice before the infectious chorus kicks in.
Intertwined among the tracks by Kurstin, Sebastian Arocha Morton (“I’m a Fire”), J.R. Rotem (“Mr. Music”, “The Queen is Back”), and Nathan DiGesare (“Slide Over Backwards”) is a trio of excellent productions by Toby Gad. “Fame (The Game)” is an intense, rock-driven parable about the perils and pitfalls of fame. The portrait Summer paints of Botox, interventions, and paparazzi cannily captures the cracked mirror of “celeb-reality.” On the other end of the stylistic spectrum, Gad steeps Summer in acoustic pop on the gorgeous “Sand On My Feet”. “I want to be like a roaring thunder / I want to be the heaven that your sky is under,” Summer intones, like a mermaid come to life. Gad encases her voice with a “watery” echo, against a soundscape that conjures gently ebbing tides and softly singing seagulls.
Founded on a fusion of dance, rock, and pop, “Science of Love” practically screams “instant classic.” Gad and Summer outdid themselves on this track, ensuring a memorable hook at every turn in the melody. A progression of melodic shifts underneath the verse builds towards a voltaic release:
“You’re always on my mind
Always have and always will be
I think about you all the time
I don’t want to, you’re a habit”
The rhythm pulsates on the pre-chorus as Summer exclaims, “I’m running away from you / Every time that you call I come undone.” Listen closely at 2:15 and 3:08 on the second and third repeat of the pre-chorus for Summer’s barely discernible full-throttled belt. It’s this kind of detail that makes “Science of Love” an exemplary production, one that underlines Summer’s knack for choosing producers who draw forth the best qualities of her own considerable talent.
Nathan DiGesare elicits the most animated performance from Donna Summer on “Slide Over Backwards”, a swampy excursion to the Louisiana bayou. Harmonica and steel guitar help tell the story of “Hattie Mae Blanche DuBois”, one of the many characters that occupy the vivid, parallel reality of Summer’s creative mind. With an aged rasp in her voice, she transforms into Hattie Mae. Music and prayer buoy her through all the hard knocks she’s endured. The song concludes with a hypnotic vamp, “Don’t know what it is sometimes / Sometimes I feel like I’m going down / Going down for the very last time.” Despite adversity, there’s inextinguishable joy in Hattie Mae’s soul.
An explosion introduces “Bring Down the Reign”, a sorrowful commentary on the atrocities afflicting the people of Darfur. Produced by Jamie Houston, the track is distinguished by a mournful dance between Summer’s voice, violinist Miri Ben-Ari, and the Agape Children’s Choir. The melody is inoculated with equal parts pain and spiritual restoration. The weighty, heart-wrenching subject matter may not induce as many regular listens as, say, “Drivin’ Down Brazil”, but Summer’s arresting performance should not be overlooked.
Inevitably, club influences find a way onto Crayons. Both dancers and DJs have bestowed a seal of approval for the buoyant, Latin-influenced “I’m a Fire” and a remix of “Stamp Your Feet” by bringing each track to number one on the club play chart. “It’s Only Love”, which is included on the European release of Crayons and a special edition in the US, is bound to trail close behind with the trance-like production by Sebastian Arocha Morton. Though these tracks might be the entree to Crayons for some listeners, they are by no means indicative of the stylistic gamut that frames the album.
What Donna Summer has illustrated on Crayons is that she is an artist driven by many muses and anchored by a multiplicity of musical selves. Crayons is a healthy antidote to an industry that loves to package and box artists. While Summer abandoned those archaic principles a long time ago, Crayons proves that those people with selective memories have some catching up to do.