Photo by Matthew Rolston

Luther Vandross’ first big solo hit single, “Never Too Much” (after he’d established himself as a successful session and jingle singer, and as the lead voice on the disco classics “Glow of Love” and “Searching” by the group Change), created a dazzling aural illusion interlacing craft, style and technique. Effortlessly sprinting through the song’s ecstatic verses, Vandross conveyed the lyrics’ longing — the despair born of joy, the lust and release — with a playfulness belied by his years of discipline. The 1981 album named for the single is, of course, a modern soul classic. For the works that followed, it’s the rarely varied blueprint: a handful of up-tempo numbers, some eviscerating ballads, and cover tunes (“A House Is Not a Home,” “Superstar/Until You Come Back to Me,” “Love Won’t Let Me Wait”) that simply became his. Luther (pronounced Lootha or Loofa, depending on degree of ghettoness) defined soul music for a heady stretch of the early ’80s.

Like many contemporary black artists, Vandross was forced to grapple with the rise of hip-hop as a depressingly limiting element of popular imaginations and aesthetics. His response for a long time was to draw ever deeper on his formula, and eventually the well just ran dry. His first three or four albums still hold up as the ultimate all-purpose (court, screw, break up, grieve) soundtracks. After that, there were only flickers of the old brilliance.

It would be great to report that Vandross’ current Dance With My Father is a return to form. With his recent stroke, fans are pulling not only for his recovery, but for a return of the Vandross who earned their adoration in the first place. The good news is that he’s constitutionally incapable of making a bad album. And that voice is still divine. But Dance suffers from a longtime plague — lack of inspiration. This time around, it’s as though he simply said “fuck it,” grabbed a copy of Vibe, and cobbled together both his subject matter and his list of collaborators.

So: We’re saddled with embarrassing tunes about the travails of being rich and famous (“Apologize”; “If It Ain’t One Thing,” which features Foxy Brown in full-on Lil’ Kim voice); lackluster covers (the classic Donny Hathaway–Roberta Flack duet “The Closer I Get to You,” here with the ubiquitous Beyoncé; a butchery of Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day” featuring Busta Rhymes); and a what-da-hell? duet with Queen Latifah. In that last item, “Hit It Again,” Loofa goes on about his insatiable sexual appetite, his need to hit it again and again, with Latifah portraying the object and benefactor of his lust. She returns the, um, ardor. The comedy subtext (a farce masquerading as a joke wrapped inside a wink & nudge conundrum) completely overwhelms the ridiculous text, and the only thing missing from this Negro version of a Doris Day–Rock Hudson film is Ludacris in the Tony Randall role.

The production on Dance With My Father is too often a coldly accurate mimicry of state-of-the-art R&B and hip-hop, which means that you long for his early work’s warmth and interplay between the singer and the live instrumentation. Fans, though, will be in heaven at the generous use of backing singers (including such reliable collaborators as Cissy Houston, Tawatha Agee and Cindy Mizelle); they’re the best thing about the album.

The title song, also the first single, derives its poignancy not from the lyrics or even Vandross’ performance, but from the fact of his stroke. On its own, this song of ache — a son hungering for just one more moment with his dead father — is a little too familiar in its scenarios and storyline to be the tearjerker it’s clearly meant to be. But when a 50-ish man, whose voice has always had a tremulously wounded quality transcending the romantic woes he sang about, pulls back the curtain and reveals at least one source of his blues, and then has his own brush with death, it’s a sobering and powerful bit of the life/art mesh. Luther in his prime, though, wouldn’t have needed that particular conflation to break your heart.

LUTHER VANDROSS | Dance With My Father (J Records)

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