What makes Heart, Soul & a Voice (SBK/ ERG) so much better than Jon Secada’s double-platinum, self-titled 1992 debut? For one thing, never underestimate the power of sincerity: Where Jon Secada was a collection of impeccably calculated pop and adult-contemporary songs, Heart, Soul & a Voice sounds like Secada’s earnest attempt to reposition himself as a state-of-the-art rhythm & blues singer, to invoke older musical styles that have meant a lot to him, and to add something original to them.
Those styles? Well, aside from his direct quotations from Marvin Gaye (hint: Think ”Sexual Healing” as you listen to ”Good Feelings”), Secada casts himself over the course of the album as a boyish, vulnerable romantic in the tradition of Smokey Robinson and Al Green. He can be full of himself and unduly self-conscious, but even at his most overwrought, Secada is Michael Bolton with soul-which automatically makes him 20 times more valuable than Bolton himself.
Jon Secada yielded a string of smooth, pervasive hit singles — ”Just Another Day,” ”Do You Believe in Us,” and ”Angel” — that gleamed with superficial pleasures: crisp beats, catchy choruses, and the easy-to-take sound of Secada’s scratchy croon. Heart, Soul & a Voice has all that stuff and a bit more. Recorded in Miami, the album frequently features undulating rhythms that are throwbacks to the tropical ’70s disco made by KC and the Sunshine Band and George McCrae. Secada himself, a Cuban-born former backup singer for Gloria Estefan, is as warm and spontaneous-sounding as Estefan is chilly and formal.
Like many pop singers, Secada doesn’t have much faith in words to express what he’s feeling; he’s content to mouth lyrics that are blithe cliches. Instead, he gets his points across by altering the grain of his voice slightly, or by lengthening or shortening the sounds of words to give them emotional weight they don’t otherwise possess. That’s what gives the album’s fast-rising single, ”If You Go,” its torch-song oomph, and why one of the most expressive tunes is ”La, La, La,” a deliriously effective love song built around those three nonsense syllables, plus a catchphrase borrowed from, of all people, the Rev. Jesse Jackson: ”I am (dramatic pause) somebody!” Similarly, Secada can take a stiff phrase like the chorus of ”Mental Picture” (”A mental picture’s all I got to go on”) and turn it into an R&B detective story, using that image to hunt down a lost love.
Ultimately, Secada isn’t in the same class as the vocalists he emulates on Heart, Soul & a Voice. He’s great at hoarse exhortations, and though his voice is vibrant and piercing, it lacks a certain range. Still, if we can’t underestimate Secada’s sincerity, neither should we ignore the allure of his meticulous schlock. The lushness of Secada’s pop-soul is frequently overripe, but it’s still a juicy treat. B+