El Debarge and Liliput have one thing in common: I would never have listened to them without the nudging of critics. Because I grew up with “Rhythm of the Night,” “Who’s Johnny,” and “Who’s Holding Donna Now,” these songs are beyond criticism — and beyond praise. As my teen years fade in closeness but not memory, the purity and straightforwardness of the galaxy of R&B hits clustered around In a Special Way sound like truth; it’s difficult thinking of a moment in, say, 1984 when I would have heard “Stay With Me” without making fun of Debarge’s voice, as many of us did a year later when “Rhythm of the Night” exploded over the airwaves. Nothing mediated “Stay With Me”‘s commitment; the falsetto bespoke his longing and the tenor his acceptance.
Last fall El Debarge released Second Chance, his first album since 1994. Those sixteen years don’t exist. A trusted coterie of collaborators — Babyface, Ron Fair, Mike Flowers, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis — keep the arrangements spare and unusually uncluttered by ProTools and synthetic embellishments (Jam and Lewis contribute their liveliest work in years). The best tracks rely on Debarge’s own Fender Rhodes keyboard or piano as foundation. My favorite, a simple thing called “Heaven,” relies on a clattering Stargate-esque percussion loop and, in the last third, a horn chart insensate with joy. A millisecond passes, and we’re in 1985, watching Eldra and his siblings, proud in their horrifying eighties, in the “Rhythm of the Night” video, reminding us the music’s playing and it’s a celebration.
Gratuitous cameos by Fabolous and an awed 50 Cent aside, Second Chance keeps the focus on Debarge as singer, and how agile he still sounds! Years of crack smoking have done only minimal damage to Debarge’s pipes; if anything the voice sounds higher and more piercing, with nary an Auto-Tune in sight (“The Other Side” should become the gold standard for confessional R&B balladry). On “Heaven” and “When I See You” he evokes Michael Jackson without the paranoia. I bring your attention again to “The Other Side, “ in which, supported by a live string section, Debarge evokes an emotional vastation so all-encompassing that it’s a wonder the final song and title track even bothers to articulate a prayer.