[29 September 2003]
On this reissue of his 1973 album, Johnny Mathis goes home, falls in and out of love, contemplates his own mortality, and ultimately concludes that everything will be all right as long as the new babies are born to carry on and he keeps on being himself. In other words, he grows—if not old—middle-aged with grace and verve. As a human being, he’s doing fine and even likably sexy in the process.
But listening to and enjoying an album isn’t the same as feeling good for Mathis’s mental health.
His sense of detail and narrative never quite give the album the soulful, contemplative edge that would make it deeply moving; the album lacks, well, oomph. He loves and he loses but, even when he outlines the specifics (as in “I remember the moment we discovered / That friendship had turned us into lovers”), his songs rarely lose the hazy malleability that keeps romantic mush from becoming the soulful balladry that it aspires to being.
For that reason, there’s nothing here that holds up as well as his cover of the Stylistics’ “I’m Stone in Love with You”. Instead of merely recounting humdrum details about happy middle age, the song compares romantic bliss with the movie star and Wall Street power broker fantasies of the first two verses before concluding: “I’m just a man, an average man / Doing everything the best I can / But if I could, I’d give the world to you”. Though the conclusion is consistent with the rest of Mathis’s songs, Mathis usually comes right out and declares something similar without much buildup. The Stylistics song, however, allows him to build tension through verses of elaborate fantasy before arriving at the understated conclusion that run through all these songs: for whatever mid-life crisis this album may vaguely hint at, it’s actually a fantasy of quiet domestic bliss, mood music for committed lifers. Indeed, as the Stylistics song concludes, it is a fantasy of lasting monogamous love so sweet that it trumps the movie star, Wall Street, and astronaut fantasies of the song’s three verses.
Except that the Stylistics’ original still beats his. Mathis’s singing, grounded and hearty, can’t wring out the same ethereal fantasy that the Stylistics’ high, tight harmonies could in their version. Mathis’s sex appeal, in both his voice and his image, is centered around the fact that he is so grounded and healthy and normal. As sex symbol singers go, Mathis is the opposite of Mick Jagger: not narcissistic, not rakish, not irresponsible, he is the good father of suburban housewife fantasies.
In the tough love affirmation of “Life is a Song Worth Singing”, for instance, Mathis sings that “Only you generate the powers / To decide what to do with your life”. Wait, you say, didn’t my parents say the same thing to me when I graduated from high school? Probably. Except that your parents would have been too embarrassed by its hokiness to conclude by saying, much less singing, “Don’t you know you can take the power / To control destiny with your mind?” Especially with a soul band, complete with brass horns, playing in the background. Not Johnny Mathis, though.
Issues and reflections that, in keener hands, could be profound or deeply moving or both often become, in Johnny Mathis’s warm, sturdy hands, bland. This is not the sort of album that rewards close listening. From a distance, it’s heartening to realize that even entertainers can, at least on record, age with humanity and dignity. Let yourself go, and you might find yourself caught up in the album’s humanistic good graces. Get a buzz from the album, and you might go around feeling, even acting, like a nicer person than you really are. Listen to it too closely, though, and the same easy grace of the music and lyrics will start sounding like platitudes. And then you’ll find yourself almost wishing that once, just once, Johnny Mathis would really start sweating the Reaper he knows is breathing down his neck, go out, get drunk, and knock up some sweet young thing just to prove that he still can.