The most impressive thing about Luther Vandross’ mightily impressive Power of Love is its calm assurance. It has been three years since Vandross released a collection of new material, and during that time a platoon of vocalists — Keith Sweat, Freddie Jackson, Phil Perry, Will Downing, Al B. Sure!, and Keith Washington, on his hit debut, Make Time for Love — have tried to usurp the position of Swoon King that Vandross held during the ’80s. Not only that, but in his absence the melodic hip-hop offshoot new jack swing became the most dominant rhythm in R&B.
Does any of this worry our Luther? It certainly doesn’t seem to: Vandross begins Power of Love with the peppery ”She Doesn’t Mind,” and as the singer coolly tosses off lines about wayward emotions and the complexities of romance, his subliminal message to fans is clear: ”Don’t worry, babies — I’m back, and I’ve still got it.”
If you doubt that, the second cut confirms his serene strength: ”Power of Love/Love Power” is as paradoxically playful and ambitious as its title. Here is a perfect example of the way pop improvisation can combine with technical precision to revitalize verbal clichés. In this case, Vandross has joined two different songs, both featuring gliding, colliding melodies that offer the singer an opportunity to apply his delicate tenor to witty, chanted variations on the songs’ titles.
”Power of Love/Love Power” is already a significant hit single and may well be the song that makes Vandross a crossover pop star for the first time in his career. It’s thrilling that he should accomplish this feat with such a complex composition. Working with his longtime collaborator, bassist and coproducer Marcus Miller, Vandross is now making the most accessible yet artful music of his career.
But there’s something else that makes Power of Love especially valuable just now. It arrives at a time when the record charts are cluttered with the narrow emotions of Wilson Phillips, Mariah Carey, and Another Bad Creation, and with the overinflated passion of Michael Bolton and Rod Stewart. In this context, Vandross’ music seems impossibly generous, thoughtful, and mature. (In fact, the only major-hit act that comes close to equaling him in these matters right now is the one he least resembles: R.E.M., whose creations can be as broodingly murky as Vandross’ are briskly crisp.)
On Power of Love, songs such as ”I’m Gonna Start Today,” ”The Rush,” and ”Emotional Love” describe the sort of openness, understatement, and spontaneity that have virtually disappeared as pop-music values since the death of Marvin Gaye and Al Green’s decision to save his soul for gospel. Power of Love falls off only slightly at the very end, when Vandross and Martha Wash howl through an endless version of Ben E. King’s 1963 tearjerker, ”I Who Have Nothing.” The song is far too self-pitying for a clear-throated realist like Vandross, and rings false: How can he have nothing when he believes so glowingly in the power of love? A-