Ever since a career-defining hits package in 1989, Luther Vandross has been coasting until, finally, the title song of Your Secret Love, which compensates for years of Christmas albums and uninspired remakes. A ballad as plush as a set of satin sheets, it has the effortless glide of his best music, with the underlying romantic ache Vandross explores so well. ''A kiss in the dark/A certain time I can call you...Why can't we tell somebody?'' he pleads; only the song's glowing chorus provides Vandross temporary relief. A new generation of smooth-groove balladeers, from Babyface to Maxwell, are challenging Vandross' throne, but no one fools around and falls in love and lives to regret it the way Luther does.
Still, Vandross could stand to take a few tips from the looser, earthier records his young competitors are making. For perhaps the first time, he truly sounds old school. Vandross is still a remarkable lost-in-love crooner, letting out muted shouts and moans with disarming subtlety, and his arranging skills remain formidable (the vocal choir in ''Love Don't Love You Anymore'' duplicates bell chimes!). But his latest batch of love songs are mostly serviceable, and the studio-musician sterility of the music makes nearly every track including Stevie Wonder's ''Knocks Me Off My Feet'' seem interchangeable. Unrequited passion will always be in style, but Vandross needs to seduce some new sounds as desperately as he does the partners in his songs. B-