The Comfort Zone

Vanessa Williams

Wing / Mercury, 1991

http://vanessawilliams.com

REVIEW BY: Peter Piatkowski

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 02/23/2021

Welsh poet George Herbert said, “Living well is the best revenge.” He could have been referring to Vanessa Williams. Crowned the first Black Miss America in 1984, she had her crown and her early career snatched away from her when nude pictures surfaced in Penthouse. This was the Reagan era in which leaked nude pictures could potentially destroy a career (as opposed to actively helping a career as we see now)

Williams herself said that the scandal and the fallout sucked out any ounce of credibility or talent that she built up to that point. But showbiz loves a good, old-fashioned comeback, and few stars managed a comeback like Vanessa Williams. Blessed with a stupendous beauty and a pitch-perfect voice, Williams managed to transcend the ignominy of her downfall and create a career of hit records, movie, television, and stage.

The Comfort Zone is the diva’s sophomore album and her most successful. Though her 1988 debut The Right Stuff went gold and spun off a string of hit singles (including her first top 10 hit, the creamy ballad “Dreamin’”), it’s her second album that made her into a pop superstar. The Comfort Zonemy_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 is a collection of early 90s dance, light soul, and mainstream pop. Produced by an army of collaborators, most notably Keith Thomas, the album is state-of-the-art urban-pop that was made for radio play.

The biggest single on the album – its centrepiece – is the grand ballad “Save The Best For Last.” It was a monster hit, ascending to the summit of the pop charts, and earning Williams a clutch of Grammy nominations. It’s a syrupy, glossy ballad with a thick, dense production that just tips into lachrymose territory. Williams sounds gorgeous, her voice a warm, lustrous instrument, but the song is MOR balladry at its worst.

Far more interesting are Williams’ forays into dance diva territory. Though her voice was often squandered on schmaltzy ballads, she has a distinct and campy persona, and has a pleasing sullen quality when she sings club tunes. The title track is sexy and takes full advantage of Williams’ considerable sultriness. Even better is the excellent “Running Back To You” that has an appealing assertive performance from the singer. Her cover of the Isley Brothers’ “Work To Do” is another fun track with light, sassy work by Williams.

Though not hit singles, The Comfort Zone’s best songs are a pair of fast-paced dance pop songs: the brisk “2 Of A Kind” and the house number “Freedom Dance (Get Free!).” These songs allow for Williams to stretch her vocal muscles and eschew the doe-eyed ingenue persona she seems to lean on when she settles into one of her signature ballads. Sure, some of the production dates, that’s seemingly unavoidable as most early ‘90s dance pop seems watermarked, but the songs are still lively and make the case that Williams should look to club music for her future.

Most of the rest of The Comfort Zone is comprised of tasteful, if slightly dull, pop ballads. All of the slow songs are impeccably produced and performed. They’re spotless. But that’s part of the problem. At the time that this album was released, Williams had yet to fully embrace the inherent campiness that would make her such a delightful and engaging performer later in her career. So her reverent singing – whilst technically perfect – was somewhat stultifying. One notable exception is “What Will I Tell My Heart” a jazz/pop standard that predicted Williams’ success as a Broadway diva; just like with the dance music, she seems to have an affinity for this kind of music because she throws herself into the performance, with insouciant vamping and passionate belting. The lean production also allows for Williams’ rich, warm voice to shine.

Rating: B-

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