Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Playboy Music

Back when he had the guts to call himself Eldra, El DeBarge masterminded the exquisite family harmonies of DeBarge. But though the austere lilt and falsetto fantasy of its In a Special Way sold handsomely, the group never conquered the "pop" (that means white) audience. It was just too idiosyncratic--and too steeped in black harmony-group tradition. So on El DeBarge (Gordy), the young singer-songwriter-producer goes solo, hiring hack songwriter-producers such as Jay Graydon and Peter Wolf to help him pass as one more ingratiating opportunist. It's a tribute to El's natural musicality and the indomitable sweetness of a voice a just God would have bestowed on a braver guy that this shamelessly ready-made synth-glitz concoction simulates a winning innocence anyway. It's great summer music, a noncritic friend tells me. And that gets its weight just right. The videos for Graydon's Stevie Wonder-ish "Someone" and Burt Bacharach's Eldra-ish "Love Always" (and more) may even alert fans to the gorgeous In a Special Way--or to the El DeBarge album an angry God had damn well better order him to mastermind next time.

Playboy, Nov. 1986


Oct. 1986 Dec. 1986