In the seven albums (eight, counting a 1989 best-of package) that he has released in the last decade, Luther Vandross has established himself as Smokey Robinson’s successor in building a personalized pop-soul loveland around beautiful singing. Because his extraordinarily rich voice, which straddles the line between tenor and baritone, is much more operatic than Robinson’s, the environment he creates around himself is more luxurious. It is a lavishly appointed, secular cathedral of soft lights and sweet music in which he presides as a high priest of romance while his ever-present female backup singers serve as ceremonial acolytes.
Power of Love, with its even mixture of ballads and uptempo songs, follows the successful format that Vandross began in 1981 with Never Too Much. Although Vandross has largely ignored the changing trends in pop-soul music, the new album takes into account the ascendancy of New Jack Swing’s spikier beats and macho bluster. Those spikes propel several cuts, including the album’s title song, written by Vandross and his regular collaborator Marcus Miller and paired with the Sandpebbles’ 1967 hit “Love Power.” At once lush and propulsive, the medley strikes a thrilling balance between assertion and reverie.
As on each of his previous records, Vandross confers his blessing on a vintage pop ballad by expanding it into a dreamy romantic suite. This year’s choice is Leiber and Stoller’s “I (Who Have Nothing),” which Ben E. King declaimed in his 1963 hit version. Rearranged into an extended duet for Vandross and Martha Wash, it becomes the gorgeous, languid lament of star-crossed, impoverished lovers who pine for each other while remaining attached to other, more well-heeled partners.
Early in his career, Vandross was glibly dubbed “the Pavarotti of pop.” In ten years he has more than lived up to the accolade, having sustained and continually refreshed his own self-styled pop-soul genre.