Monday 19 April 2021

Luther VANDROSS: Songs


(#513: 1 October 1994, 1 week)


Track listing: Love The One You’re With/Killing Me Softly/Endless Love (duet with Mariah Carey)/Evergreen/Reflections/Hello/Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now/Always And Forever/Going In Circles/Since You’ve Been Gone/All The Woman I Need/What The World Needs Now/The Impossible Dream


The album was Tommy Mottola’s idea, and Mariah Carey therefore got on board as song advisor. I think the aim was to get Luther Vandross a number one pop album. It only peaked at number five on Billboard but certainly became his only chart-topper here, and moreover went platinum. Consumers are sometimes so easily placated.


Vandross properly belongs in the eighties; if the seventies soul man template was divided between Barry White (seductive) and Teddy Pendergrass (declamatory, pained), then the eighties basically became a choice between the determined, no-nonsense proclamations of Alexander O’Neal, and Luther, there to soothe “The Ladies.”


The problem many people have still with Vandross is what they perceive as a slightly boisterous but cuddly one-mood-fits-all vocal delivery. It’s not dissimilar to the trouble I used to have with Ella Fitzgerald interpreting The Great American Songbook – she just sounds so darned cheerful all the time that it becomes offputting. I once consulted Ian Penman for advice on my Ella problem and he suggested listening to her as one would an instrumentalist, concentrating on her grain and minute emotional variations. Seen that way, it is eminently possible to imagine Lester Young “singing” Cole Porter or the Gershwins on his tenor.


You had to be careful with Luther Vandross’ voice and how you handled it. There is a sense of scarred nobility about his singing which puts me in mind of Stan Getz, and arguably the only person who got him was Marcus Miller. All of the six albums which he released in the eighties are worth your attention, but it is noticeable how his art both contracts and expands once Miller becomes directly involved as producer and arranger; 1985’s The Night I Fell In Love is their masterpiece, as majestically melancholy an extended soliloquy as Miles Davis’ Tutu (another Miller production) the following year; its closing song, “The Other Side Of The World,” is one of the most remarkable pieces of music from any decade; the singer’s wonderment views the cosmic cloisters and sees…salvation, deliverance. Ultimately, Vandross breaks down atoms of the song, words and thoughts circulating almost at random, creating a depth of peace musically comparable to John Martyn’s “Small Hours” – the sense of the eternal blue in the air of resolved transformation.


Clearly, then, Vandross was capable of much more than the one-grinning-note groove. Yet it is hard, if perversely far too easy, to discern why his only British number one album is also his least indispensable one. Certainly David Nathan’s preposterous, bombastic liner note, written seemingly as though he were Vasari and Vandross Michelangelo – it even becomes quite North Korea in places - does little to attract floating voters.


And it is hard, in 1994, still to be expected to swallow this plan to win over middle-class whites with black music as only middle-class whites are expected to understand it – it’s late sixties Motown all over again; wasn’t there another album then which concluded with “The Impossible Dream” (it’s getting as persistent a Then Play Long regular as “The Twelfth Of Never” – this insatiable appetite people have for the same songs, the same stories, over and over again….)? – when half of this album, more or less, consists of songs written by white people.


Songs is, in terms of singing them…efficient, like your plumber is efficient, turns up on time, does the job but don’t dare call it art. There’s easy amusement to be had with Vandross converting a secular love song into a spiritual one (“Love The One You’re With”). There are also two instances of accidental transcendence to which I shall return presently.


Much of this record appears starved of point. Vandross could have done a lot of interesting things with “Hello” but somebody – presumably producer Walter Afanasieff, who is no Marcus Miller – turns his version into a show tune, whereas the power of Lionel Richie’s original is that he under-sings, under-emotes; it’s just his imagination running away with him, and one has to imagine what, if anything, fills the many emotional gaps. Heatwave’s original “Always And Forever,” thanks to Rod Temperton, Johnnie Wilder, John Cameron, Barry Blue and especially the drummer Ernest “Bilbo” Berger, is perfect, and Vandross misses the harmonic and emotional ambiguities entirely.


When he tries to up the tempo and put “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” into an early-nineties airtight “soul” compartment, one can only be drawn back to La Charanga 76’s extraordinary, near-ten-minute-long Latin restructuring of the song (“No Nos Pararan,” as they called it) to recognise exactly what restructuring a song means. At the other extreme, “Reflections” was of its time – even the introduction to the Supremes original has to be sampled - and cannot be blanded out in this monetarist fashion.


He cannot do Aretha, even though he twice produced largely excellent albums for her in the early eighties (his “Since You’ve Been Gone” is, frankly, an insult to her) and the less said about his Whitney reverse-view (“All The Woman I Need”), the better. As for doing Mariah, the great lady herself said that she found standing next to Vandross in the studio, singing “Endless Love” with her, “intimidating,” and the end result is a glutinous mass which really does not go anywhere.


His ”What The World Needs Now” is a disgrace – never mind Tom Clay and Gene Page, even Bruce Forsyth did the song better – and doubly so when you consider his phenomenal previous meditations on Bacharach and David (1981’s coruscating, seven-minute “A House Is Not A Home,” 1986’s mindnumbing, nearly six-minute “Anyone Who Had A Heart”). It is as though he is not even trying. When he periodically digs a little deeper in the crate – “Going In Circles,” a spellbinding 1969 Billboard top twenty hit for The Friends Of Distinction, with its kaleidoscopic pallbearer of a string and brass arrangement by Ray Cork Jr. – he leaves no trace of evident interest or compelling attraction.


And yet, on a couple of occasions here, Vandross touches…something. He takes “Evergreen,” this album’s most studiously white-bread song, and turns it, for once with the aid of a sympathetic arranger (Jeremy Lubbock, with the London Symphony Orchestra – you can glimpse, albeit very dimly, an LSO tunnel linking Ornette Coleman’s Skies Of America and Promises by Floating Points and Pharaoh Sanders), into a Hamlet meditation; the arrangement is rootless, spacious, and the song’s modest harmonic demands are rather splendidly met…as though the singer is an intercosmic wanderer, attempting to comprehend just what this thing known as “love” might be.


He gets it, again, on “Killing Me Softly” which, because of The Fugees three years later, has not been remembered, so much so that I had to check the album credits to ensure that Marcus Miller was not involved. Miles should have lived to play this. And, most subtly – not simply the singer’s casual but knowing aside, in reply to the couplet “And then he looked right through me/As if I wasn’t there,” of “I was right there” – Vandross does not change the gender of the song’s subject, and that is not a small gesture, since the singer took great pains to conceal his homosexuality during his lifetime – even though all of his friends and acquaintances knew he was gay, he was scared of losing the “ladies’ love man” demographic – so this acts as a signpost to those in the know, or willing to know.


If only more such bravery had been risked in Songs, if only his family history of diabetes hadn’t resurfaced, if only he’d controlled his health better…the “if”s are as endless as Vandross’ fifty-four years of life, sadly, weren’t. In August 1974 he had sung on Bowie’s “Can You Hear Me?” A lifetime later, he was still asking the same, semi-rhetorical question.