The good is the enemy of the best, as the Greeks used to say. Somebody should tell Luther Vandross. His deft command of pop’s building blocks is unmistakable, but his silken rendering of love songs fosters comparisons with Johnny Mathis — a dubious compliment. Underneath all the gloss, there’s no passion.
Still, this is an eminently listenable album that skillfully evokes the light, romantic mood Vandross is so fond of. The LP hits its stride with a cover of Brenda Russell’s “If Only for One Night,” where Vandross’ brokenvoiced, pianissimo pleading is set against tinkling piano rills and a whispering synth. Demonstrating his unsurpassed skill with vocal arrangements, Vandross takes the sophisticated samba of Stevie Wonder’s “Creepin'” at the half-whisper of Brazilian pop. The addition of multitracked voices and the rhythmic singing of the female backup singers make a very tasty reading. This record’s remarkable polish is also the result of the sympathetic work of singers and musician-arrangers who have been with Vandross since his first LP. Nat Adderley Jr.’s string, rhythm and synth arrangements are particularly apt on the beautifully orchestrated dreamscape of “Other Side of the World.”
It’s these ballads that make this product noteworthy; the upbeat songs have a dreadful smoothness. Only Billy Preston’s organ playing sparks “Till My Baby Comes Home,” which shares the genial, asexual dance beat of the title song.
But fast or slow, none of these cuts can rival the play of musical textures that illumined the title track of Superstar, which remains Vandross’ best work. While this record is perfect as background music, it fails to deliver on Vandross’ early promise. To do that, he’d have to move beyond the rote exercise of his gifts.