It’s always agreeable to encounter Anita Baker on Top 40 radio. Everything about her — the smoky passion in her voice, the restrained hint of jazz in the way she shapes what she sings — confirms her reputation for elegance and refinement. Hearing her in the middle of music aimed at teenagers is like finding fine wine unexpectedly added to the menu at McDonald’s.
Her albums aren’t quite so rewarding. The nine cuts on this new record stroll by at more or less the same pace; Baker sings them all in variations of the same rapt tone of voice, no matter what stories their lyrics tell. ”Talk to Me” is about a woman who begs her lover to tell her what he wants; ”Soul Inspiration” deals with a man who gives his woman everything. But without hearing the words it would be tricky to tell which was which.
The songs themselves are less than extraordinary. ”More Than You Know” (which bears the same name as an old Billy Rose number) sounds at the start like a pop standard. But the melody never blooms into anything memorable, as a great tune by Gershwin or Cole Porter would. And the lyrics throughout the album are entirely undistinguished. In ”Love You to the Letter” they sink to the level of a goopy greeting card: ”Water flows down from a hill/And yellow grows on daffodils.”
But that’s enough bad news. Baker casts an undeniable spell, which on Compositions is stronger and more intimate than it was on her two previous major-label albums. Her musicians — always a small group, sometimes no more than keyboards, bass, and drums — follow her thoughtfully, mixing R&B, jazz, and old and new pop. They play with discreet but tangible abandon, maybe because they recorded the songs at the same time Baker did, something almost unheard of in an age when the instrumental part of an album is usually taped first and vocal parts slotted in long after the musicians have left the studio.
The result is music that holds up well on repeated hearings. It’s true that, as song follows song, Baker gives what sounds like the same performance. Her singing isn’t going to challenge listeners. But it just might leave them feeling comforted and reassured.