It must be hard to be Michael Bolton. Blessed with an unfathomably powerful voice, he nonetheless harvests love and grimaces only in about equal measure. He pays tribute to some sturdy old songs and gets labeled as a cover-only singer. It’s enough to drive a man to play baseball or something. Which he does. Softball, actually, but you get the picture.
This 1995 collection of a decade’s worth of hits shows off Bolton’s prowess and production in a way that sheds some light on the ambivalent reception he’s earned. In truth, fifty-three million albums may not be a definition of ambivalence you’re familiar with. Yet the sheer quantity of anti-Bolton reviews that surface on websites everywhere suggests that the a-word is not a bad place to begin this assessment of Michael Bolton, Greatest Hits 1985-1995.
Let’s get one thing up on the table straight out: Bolton’s voice is not subtle. It’s either on or off. This can be an exceptionally good thing when you want to hear the boy wail as he does on—let’s pick one—’(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay’. This old saw has been done by a lot of artists but never with more passion. That’s what Bolton brings instead of subtlety : passion. And this is precisely where that one half of humanity that hates Michael Bolton—yes, I exaggerate a little—launches their first assault.
This reviewer is a lover of ballads. I think most top-tier vocalists do their best work when they wax balladesque. Yet in countless listenings to this album in preparation for reviewing it, I’ve come to the conclusion that Bolton’s stock-in-trade is just the opposite. Ballads require a certain suave restraint. Bolton doesn’t have that. He’s at his best when he goes anthemic. The rock or soul anthem takes one simple idea and absolutizes it, celebrates, shouts about it, weeps about it, pretends for a moment that the world is made of it. Think of Jagger on `You’re So Hot’. It’s a hilarious song because it boils all of life down to life at the groin level. You don’t expect the Stones to explore the angst of the thing, to paint it in a dozen hues. It’s an anthem of sorts.
On this album–an artifact, if you will, of a decade of performance–Bolton goes into anthemic orbit time after time. This is precisely when he’s very, very good. The parade example is the testosterone-charged When I’m Back On My Feet Again. What guy—I’m one of them—has not found this song momentarily the truest description of life as he lives it that has ever been voiced. It’s all about the comeback and, dammit, Michael is not gonna’ let go of this bone until he’s done chewing it as loudly as he can.
Or take `Time, Love, and Tenderness’. (You can have it, the cynics may respond …). The point is not that this tune is great art. It’s that Bolton lets fly, with exceptional instrumental and vocal backup, and he gets you singing in your car as though this song were the only thing that mattered today. Or ever. Now how can you hate that?
I could go on (turning to `This River’, for example). But you get the point.
Let me make another observation about Bolton, who lavishly thanks his band on the CD liner, something that comes clear on about the sixth or seventh listen to this anthology: this album (and therefore Bolton’s decade) would not be half of what it is without Tommy Cain at the drums. This man is one awesome exemplar of rhythm-restraining percussion work. You need this on an anthem because the energy either makes you speed up or slow down. Cain is always holding things back a millisecond from where you think they’re going. The effect is critical to the music.
Occasionally, he simply blows the roof off. Listen to his craftsmanship at 3:00 of track nine (`When a Man Loves a Woman’).
Maybe the ambivalence that surrounds this gifted singer comes from asking him to be something that he is not. He can occasionally excel on the ballad, with all its emotional freight, as in the semi-balladesque `Said I Loved You … But I Lied’ (which, by the way, is one of the purely great tunes on this album). But he wants to wail, he’s gonna’ wail, and none of us is gonna’ stop him from wailing. That’s what Bolton does.
He wails. He wails on songs that lots of other people have recorded. It’s a free country and a man with pipes like Providence has given to Michael Bolton can do that if he wants to, not least when 53 million people have said `I’ll buy that’.
You might consider just letting it be what it is and then, one fine day when nobody is watching, you may find yourself belting out some worn old line of lyrics as though you’d just now made’em up yourself.
It’s a pretty good sound, really.