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THE MASTER OF LOVE SONGS

Love songs tend to get short shrift from critics. Most scribes are wowed by trenchant social commentary, the grand poetic statement, clever couplets. But Luther Vandross is hard to slough off. During his decade-long career, the silky-voiced singer has raised the straightforward, sensitive love song to a higher art form. "Love for me is the best thing now / It's something that I know so well," he croons on the epic, gospel-infused title track from Power of Love. A major understatement.

Judy Collins "looked at love from both sides now"; Vandross has gone over it with a microscope. In an era when Do Me Baby is passed off as a love ditty, Vandross' unabashed romanticism brings some welcome warmth to pop music. He plays the desperate loser, the doormat, the blissful suitor, the steadfast companion. Talk of sex is veiled in gentle metaphor.

If Vandross' new album has a unifying theme, it's his unshakable faith in love as an institution. And sometimes the relationships in Vandross' songs are secondary to that institution: "Love, what have you done, oh wow / I was sure up till now," opens Don't Want to Be a Fool. Or another interesting take: " 'Cause sometimes love is wonderful / But sometimes it's only love." (Mull it over for a moment, and the lines ring true.)

Of course, all of these views from the love scope wouldn't amount to a wilted rose if not for Vandross' translucently soulful singing. At turns breathy, belting and smooth _ with a dusky, multihued texture _ Vandross is one of pop's premiere vocal stylists. Perhaps more important, he's a deft song interpreter who can make the pain, pleasure, frustration and joy in these songs thoroughly palpable. When Luther sings about love, which is all he sings about, there's never any doubting that he means it.

Although Power of Love includes a handful of uptempo tracks, Vandross largely sticks to his strengths: sensual mid-tempo material and ballads. With his main writing and production partner Marcus Miller, Vandross has become a strong melodist who doesn't rely on the simple hook.

Whereas earlier Vandross albums might have featured two or three knockout tracks, some average fare and a few throwaways, Power of Love remains consistent throughout. There's no obvious classic here, like A House is Not a Home or Superstar, but track for track, the album is a gem. As always, the production is lush and unapologetically slick.

Luther Vandross continues to do what he does best, staying out of the dance-pop, hip-hop, "new jack" fray. More power to him.

Luther Vandross

Power of Love

(Epic)

++++

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