I can only speak for the things that I’ve been through,” Luther Vandross declares on “Promise Me,” and his absolute emotional veracity is what elevates this lavish greatest-hits package to the soul stratosphere. “So when it comes to our love, I’ll talk the whole night through.”
Talk hell: Vandross cries, whispers, sighs, cajoles, shouts, shimmies and speaks in unknown tongues. His silken virtuosity is a marvel, all right, but it’s that unyielding commitment to the progress and vagaries of love in our lives that gives Vandross such undeniable seductive force — not to mention staying power. By tracing Vandross’s rise from session voice to bedroom icon, The Best of Love belies the clichés about how black pop has gone all soft and sticky in the Eighties.
Two tracks by the studio group Change demonstrate that Vandross’s range and intimate tone were in place at the turn of the decade. (He’d spent the Seventies recording everything from jingles to Young Americans, with David Bowie.) “Searching” cops a rolling synth-bass line from Off the Wall, and “The Glow of Love” is a letter-perfect Chic knockoff, but Vandross stands out, especially when he’s smearing words into abstract expressions of urgency or transforming corny rhymes into something eloquent.
“Never Too Much” was Vandross’s first solo hit, and now it feels like a classic: The bass clicks to attention and then starts a jaunty stride, the orchestra marches in, and Vandross proceeds to extract profundity from the most commonplace declarations of love. Throughout the album Vandross expresses “feelings deep enough to swim in” without ever sinking — his sharp, spacious arrangements and production smarts keep him high and dry.
Even medleys aren’t a lazy showman’s way out in Vandross’s hands. The morning-after guilt of “Bad Boy” is played off the joyous night-before refrain of Sam Cooke’s “Having a Party,” while Brenda Russell’s “If Only for One Night” gives in elegantly to Stevie Wonder’s “Creepin’.” And what Vandross does with the Carpenters’ “Superstar” by way of Aretha’s “Until You Come Back to Me” is dizzying.
The more recently recorded tracks have all the synthesized sizzle of current pop — plus, get this, actual melodies. It’s hard to understand why the haunted, catchy “Give Me the Reason” wasn’t a huge crossover smash. People somehow get the idea that Luther Vandross is an overly lugubrious love man. Nothing could be further from the truth. Vandross and Cheryl Lynn do slow down “If This World Were Mine” almost to a crawl, but when their voices come together near the end — whew! Vandross’s luscious attention to vocal foreplay and afterglow heats every song in this collection — and helps make The Best of Love more than live up to the sweet promise of its title.