Popdose Flashback: Michael Bolton, “Soul Provider”

Written by Music, Popdose Flashback '89

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In Bull Durham, Kevin Costner’s character Crash Davis chides Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) for his laziness and lack of focus on the game of baseball. “You got a gift,” he says. “When you were a baby, the gods reached down and turned your right arm into a thunderbolt. You got a Hall-of-Fame arm, but you’re pissing it away.”

Likewise, when Michael Bolotin (later, Bolton) was born, the gods reached down and gave him lungs of reech Coreenthian leather—a multi-octave range, filtered through a gruff, almost sandpaper-like delivery. But saying Bolton can sing is like saying George Bush can speak English: big deal, what’s he done with it? The issue is context. His early solo work in the 70s was crap—miscast as a Joe Cocker wannabe, he tried his hand crooning stuff like “These Eyes” and “Time is on My Side,” with no particular distinction. His two-album stint as the lead singer of Blackjack was similarly underwhelming—muddy production and faceless instrumentation (by Bruce Kulick, Sandy Gennaro, and Jimmy Haslip, all of whom would go on to more distinctive work elsewhere) left the listener feeling damaged in some significant way.

No, it was shortly after Blackjack, 1983 and ’84 to be exact, when Bolton found a niche that worked—that of the arena rock god. On both his self-titled ’83 album and Everybody’s Crazy, which followed the next year, he was backed by flashy, hairsprayed sidemen, who provided the echoed drums and WEE-diddly-diddly gee-tar that helped put Bolton on the road, opening for Ozzy, Loverboy, and their corporate rawk brethren. In arena rock, he found a musical backdrop where his tendency toward histrionics fit, where it was even encouraged. Had he stayed with that style, who knows what might have become of him? He could be co-headlining with Poison this summer, or releasing a Journey-like comeback record through Wal-Mart.

Journey’s Neal Schon and Jonathan Cain, in fact, contributed to The Hunger (1987), the record that put Bolton on solid commercial ground, but it was the follow-up, Soul Provider (1989), that sealed the deal, making the former Mr. Bolotin a household name, like Miracle Whip, Preparation H, and Drano. It wafted to Number 3 on the Billboard 200 and tallied five Top 40 hits, selling six million copies and ushering in the Age of Melisma, the era of the elongated note, the period when the Memorex Moment went pop, a time of unparalleled and unbearable histrionics—like American Idol, only done by professionals.

The record is best known for its title track and the Number One hit “How Am I Supposed to Live without You.” The latter, written by Bolton but originally recorded and sent up the charts by Laura Branigan, is tailor-made AC balladry, heavy on the drama and, thus, heavy on Bolton’s upper-register wail. “Soul Provider,” on the other hand, burns slowly, possesses a decent bridge, and gives him an acceptable setting on which to declaim. “You don’t understand,” he sings, “the full intent of my plan.” World domination? Alien invasion? Who knows? It ain’t exactly soulful, but it works, in a Boltony kind of way.

Three tracks play to Bolton’s proto-hair bad roots. “You Wouldn’t Know Love” would have fit nicely on Everybody’s Crazy—he alternately growls and shouts over sufficiently dirty guitars and arena-ready keyboards. “It’s Only My Heart” starts off with the Top Gun montage synthesizers, leading into Bolton’s defiant riot-act-reading vocal. He practically snarls at the woman who left him. “It’s only my heart breaking inside me,” he sings (translation: “If you feelin’ like a pimp, Mikey, go and brush your shoulders off”).

The real kicker, though, is “How Can We Be Lovers,” which is everything that’s good about Bolton in a single four-minute package, tied with a bow made from a lock of his mullet. The caterwaul actually fits the context, goosed along by the tight-as-Tupperware music—Eighties synths, loud power chords, and background vocals that sound like Eighties synths, all locked into something approaching a groove. The lyrics actually don’t suck—”How can we make love when we can’t make amends?” Are you kidding? Did Bob Dylan write a line that good on Oh Mercy? Well, yeah, he did, repeatedly, but it’s still a better sentiment than most anyone expected from Bolton at the time.  Sadly, it was written either by Diane Warren or Desmond Child, who share the co-writer credit.

But then there’s the real dreck, beginning with an execrable take on “Georgia on My Mind,” a song that requires subtlety, nuance, and soul—things Bolton simply cannot pull off, so he substitutes them with nut-numbing cries and misplaced hoo-hoos. When Ray Charles sang “Georgia,” he sang it with dignity and longing, both of which were believable. Bolton’s rendition is like King Kong up on the Empire State Building, yelling, “Hey! Look at me” and “Hey! How the hell do I get down from here?”

Oh, but there’s more.  “Love Cuts Deep” resembles a Joe Cocker track—that’s late-period, “When the Night Comes,” shitty Joe Cocker, not the Mad Dogs and Englishmen guy. The less that’s said about “From Now On,” a duet with Suzie Benson, the better. Suffice to say, had any B-level chick flick needed a “love theme” in ’89, this woulda been perfect(ly awful).

Two other tracks put Bolton’s voice is so far out front of the mix, they might as well be a capella. “When I’m Back on My Feet Again” is a Diane Warren recovery ballad so overwrought, one expects a children’s choir to join him in the end (apparently, all the children’s choirs of the world were busy during the period of the recording sessions). Overwrought kinda makes sense in “Stand Up for Love,” though. The song could have been a great K-Tel compilation inclusion back in the day—a sweet Seventies love anthem sadly out of place at the dawn of the Nineties.

Why did we like Soul Provider so much (and by “we,” I mean my wife, and all 5,999,999 of you reading this)? We may never understand the full intent of his plan, nor the popular delusion and madness of crowds that put six million copies of this disc into people’s homes. Or six million of the follow-up, Time, Love, and Tenderness. Or four million of Timeless (The Classics). Like Samson shorn, he’s never hit those heights since, and it’s doubtful that he will again. But in ’89, as Soul Provider was taking off, it was conceivable that we were all going to have to contend with the melisma, the caterwaul, and the shiny plastic soul Bolton peddled for a long, long, looooong time.

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