We know the ever-ubiquitous, always-empowered music and lyrics of songwriter Diane Warren, intimately, long before we know her as a performative artist. That’s because unlike legendary song-scribes like Carole King and Valerie Simpson, Warren waited 38 years since her first chart-topping tune (1983’s Laura Branigan’s “Solitaire”) to concern herself with making a solo album, “The Cave Sessions Vol. 1.” And even with this, she hasn’t placed her own vocals on a record with her name across the top, instead bringing in friends like Celine Dion, John Legend, Maren Morris, Luis Fonsi and Ty Dolla $ign for fronting duties.
Without singing a lick, however, Warren’s resonant voice still comes through loud and clear on her debut, with varying degrees of windswept drama and aching romanticism, the likes of which have powered power ballads she’s penned for Celine Dion (“Because You Loved Me”), Aerosmith (“I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”), Toni Braxton (“Un-Break My Heart”), Britney Spears, Beyoncé, Pet Shop Boys and more. Following in the footsteps of her soundtrack to your ’90s profile, for example, Warren and James Arthur’s “Cave Session” cut, “You Go First,” could’ve been sung by the equally chesty Michael Bolton 25 years ago, for all of its boyish brio here.
Along with Warren’s predilection for happily hammy theatricality, epically-uplifted chord progressions and an up-with-people universality (and down with that which scars and mars us) , the new music that fills “The Cave Sessions Vol. 1” — named for her long-held Hollywood Hills office — features, too, a surprising subtlety and shade to go with her ardent anthem-izing. There might never be much of an edge to Warren’s bright, emotional songwriting, but on “The Cave Sessions,” there’s plenty of shadow to balance the light.
Fact is, Warren seems to use these “Sessions” as a clearing house of styles not usually associated with her – like the mid-tempo, Latin-laced R&B of her G-Eazy/Carlos Santana collab, “She’s Fire,” and the gurglingly atmospheric oceanic-soul of “Seaside,” from Rita Ora, Sofia Reyes & Reik. The former comes across like a “Supernatural” outtake, and the latter may be overly literal in matching its tone to its title, but, beyond that, this doesn’t immediately spring to mind as Diane Warren material.
In some ways, “Cave Sessions” is reminiscent of a DJ Khaled album (minus the self-referential screaming): It’s full of grand, sleek R&B-hop with supple Latin touches, a superstar cast doing all the heavy studio lifting, and not a whole lot of ire-filled urgency to spoil the mood. Unlike a DJ Khaled album, hers is not songcraft by committee. Warren is a woman who writes all on her own, and colors outside her lines only when necessary. This “old fashioned” brand of writing is laser-focused and hones in on the finest qualities of her each frontperson she brings in, sometimes besting them at their own game.
Take John Legend’s piano-heavy ballad “Where is Your Heart,” which sports Warren’s bruised-melancholy lyrics, a cascading melody and a bridge so dynamic, it could be a hit on its own. The tune allows Legend’s patented vocal quiver to roam free, and low, but with delectable control. It sounds just like a John Legend hit. Only better.
The same thing is true of Maren Morris’ “I Save Me.” With the thinnest slip of AutoTune on her achy-breaking vocal, a cool narrative with a good twist, and a brushed denim rush on its acoustic guitar, the Morris-Warren teaming sounds as natural and organic as spring peas.
Even giving the always-haughty Paloma Faith an “Edge of Seventeen”-like update in the supercilious “Blessings” is seamless, a doubling-down of the best kind. Meanwhile, Ty Dolla $ign hasn’t made a sound musical decision since 2016’s “Work From Home,” so hooking up with a songwriter worthy of his dreamily dramatic Drambuie-on-ice croon, on Warren’s “Drink You Away, makes for his best and smoothest song in ages. Not only does the cushion contours of her melody/arrangement suit his voice and demeanor, it proves that maybe he should back away from the edge more often.
Warren also goes beyond beyond for Fifth Harmony vocalist Lauren Jauregui by offering her not just another Ariana Grande impersonation, but rather a ’60s girl-group-with-bite/Amy Winehouse-Lite soliloquy “Not Prepared.” If Jauregui is looking to further differentiate herself from the Fifth, she could do worse than hire Warren for a full record.
Not everything on “Cave Sessions” is great, good or mildly amusing. The Jon Batiste/Pentatonix track, “Sweet,” is so saccharine and cornball, your teeth will rattle from the syrup. Darius Rucker’s “Times Like This” features the sort-of heavy handed sentiment that drives lesser people to Lee Greenwood records. Luis Fonsi’s “When We Dance Slow” is softly spun cha-cha stuff, but ultimately sounds like the soundtrack to a bad movie where a quintessentially down-on-his-luck main character survives through “music.”
Besides the aforementioned Warren/James Arthur track, “You Go First,” and its breast-beating grandeur, there are two similarly grand tracks that revel in Warren’s epic tones and empowered lyricism, proving that for all of “Cave Sessions’” subtleties and shadow, her trademark pomp-and-circumstance still works wonders.
LP, a deep-voiced vocalist of great heft and a hit songwriter for bigger names, has never fashioned a smash for herself that exemplifies and magnifies her best qualities. That Warren has done so for LP in the synth-touched, self-empowered “Domino” is fantastic. It would have been more fantastic if the Shania/Carrie-like cut came 20 years ago, in accordance with its gi-hugic sound and the swell of the charts, but timing isn’t always a great song’s best friend.
The same is true of Warren’s long-awaited re-pairing with Celine Dion for the new “Superwoman.” The gently contagious song huffs, puffs and is definitely dated in a Toni Braxton-meets-Cher manner. But if songcraft like Diane Warren’s is so wrong in an era where that kind of big diva balladry rarely tops charts anymore, who needs being right?