n First Listen is a regular column that forces our regular writers to listen to bands that they’ve never heard—but by all rights should have—and charts the reaction.
Chocolate disgusts me, and watching people eat it disgusts me. Observation taught me this at age 15. You try smiling when the girl you’re crushing on slow dances with one of your best friends; you try sitting upright when this friend mouths the words to Luther Vandross’ “Here and Now” as she lays her head on his shoulder.
“Here and Now” is a disgusting song for any occasion. Hurl whatever qualifiers you want. It’s sung and arranged with consummate taste, the kind of performance which forces one to grope for taglines like “It transcends bathos”—as if anything could. An example of chocolate-box fare: a gift of surpassing generosity and predictability. Since “Here and Now” was at the time Vandross’ biggest pop crossover I felt contempt for those critics who mourned the star’s near-total absence from Top 40 radio: If this is what you’ve been shilling for years, we’ll keep Atlantic Starr and Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam, m’kay thanks.
There it is: my Luther Problem. A few days before his death, I bought The Essential Luther Vandross in an attempt at redress. I sampled it over a period of months, anticipating the moment when Luther’s divinity would be revealed—when, to the accompaniment of “Stop to Love,” Vandross would appear in conversation with the transfigured forms of Marvin and Otis. I did make progress. No longer did I hate him—Vandross is so mild that it’s like hating a bar of soap—and active conditioning was enough to make me smile at the recollection of seven or eight of his best numbers, or his worst numbers: Luther’s consistency turns words like “good” and “bad” into hash. Another reason to hate him, I suppose.
Vandross’ geniality bit his fat ass on his ballads, or rather, how he sang them. His was a tenor of unusual suppleness, with sepia tones hinting at darkness, to which he would clumsily resort when he wanted to sound put-upon or mean (like Billy Joel’s angry-millionaire petulance in “A Matter of Trust”). Technically it’s unassailable, as pure and sweet as a human voice can be; but it was an unearned purity. A suspicious purity. Where the gratitude of Al Green’s “Look What You’ve Done for Me” was borne of a long residence in an earthly hell that’s far worse than the damnation that Paul of Tarsus fetishized, Vandross’ cover of “A House Is Not a Home,” the centerpiece of his performance style, is a polyurethane wonder, amazing even, and as disgusting as that box of chocolates. Maybe he learned this insincerity from former boss David Bowie, on whose Young Americans Vandross sang backing vocals (and reportedly contributed to the arrangements, uncredited). Makes sense to me: “A House Is Not a Home” is like a Bowie number sung with impeccable breath control.
At its worst, The Voice just sits there, sated, like the kid with the dimples who ate all the Velvet Crème donuts daring you to scold him. Historically approved examples of wealth and breeding penned by Stevie Wonder (“Creepin’”) and Lionel Richie (“Endless Love”) rolled off the Vandross assembly line, although there’s something to be said about the oppressive sanctimony of Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With” meeting its match in Vandross’ cheerful sanctimony. Only Brenda Russell’s “If Only for One Night” plumbs a restlessness he would just as soon discount (more on this later). The rest call a truce between his Hallmark-worthy verse, a voice that too frequently savors them like they were Cole Porter, and his fascination with the mixing board. A favorite is 1986’s “Give Me the Reason,” in which his lower register navigates the shoals of MIDI programming and elegantly fierce guitar lines; his habit of refusing to balk at his self-imposed restraints is for once a plus.
His production skills—rarely mentioned as often as the goddamn voice—almost always impress, especially during the early 1980’s, a fecund time for a particularly adventurous post-disco-sucks dance music enriched by New Romantic takes on Gamble & Huff and the innovations of Chic. Listen to 1981’s “Never Too Much,” his first solo hit—still fresh, snappin’, and on the one, as staccato strings and decorative piano swagger as cocksure as The Voice. “She Loves Me Back” is like your beloved kissing you on the cheek for the first time; “I’ll Let You Slide” reminds us that, wow, fuck the chocolates, Luther can slide something else in given the chance. The two albums he wrote and produced for Aretha Franklin contain a couple of gems, notably the title track to 1983’s Get It Right, which is as frisky and gay (ahem) as Vandross ever got. As the ‘80s progressed Vandross was as responsible as anyone for the mechanization of R&B, but when he was on, jumpier tracks like “Stop to Love” gave his swollen black and growing white audience a safer alternative to Prince. He was the ideal AIDS-era auteur, sexless and incorporeal. I love 1991’s “Power of Love/Love Power” because it gives Vandross the chance to float over chintzy Casio percussion and organ washes like he’s too good for them, murmuring banalities he’s convinced the rest of us take for granted.
One of those banalities was assuming that gender was insignificant. I’m not sure why Vandross concluded that his fans would shun him for being gay; weren’t they listening? Sweat and saliva were banished from his kingdom long ago. Playing “Here and Now” in the months after his death I learned to despise it. I promise to love faithfully—blegh. Why did he accept these heterosexual tropes so unquestioningly? Rancor yielded to melancholy, as I grasped why he had to continue the investment, no matter the psychic (never mind aesthetic) cost. For almost 30 years Vandross asserted his right to believe in the same clichés as his audience; if it meant accommodation to their expectations, so be it. In this light the pain in “If Only for One Night” and “Power of Love” become too much for one person to stand, even a man with as ethereal a voice, as uncomplicated a sensibility.
Which is why the 1980 hit he sang for Change remains my favorite Luther moment. In “Glow of Love” (which he had no hand in writing or producing) Vandross is for once surprised by joy; he’s not fatuous yet, he wants to communicate to an audience that’s only just beginning to know him. The steady quasi-Chic rhythm and block chords played on an unobtrusive synth mirror the rapt quality of Vandross’ vocal; he’s so bewitched that, although he can’t take his eyes off his lover, he must give joy a texture his fellow humans can taste, can smell, can feel. As I wrote a few months ago, “Vandross’ attempts in his own work to reproduce what he achieved on “The Glow of Love” are no less touching for being quixotic. He understood as early as 1980 that happiness is but a glow, a frisson, an experience forged of equal parts memory and imagination.” How comforting to realize that Vandross was as confounded, stupid, and susceptible to grace as the rest of us.