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An earnest but generic new effort

October 16, 2005

Stevie Wonder

"A Time to Love" (Motown)

* * 1/2

JUST as President Bush has built up what he calls "political capital," Stevie Wonder has accrued considerable musical capital -- a deep reservoir of good will and respect generated not only by his unimpeachable pop singles of the '60s and landmark albums of the '70s but also by his sunny demeanor and humanitarian spirit.

That good will comes in handy every decade or so when Wonder's incessant studio tinkering finally congeals into a completed album. Everybody's happy that he's keeping himself busy, no one comes down hard on him for not creating another "Innervisions," a flurry of testimonials rises and fades away, and then everyone goes back to business as usual, the Wonder legacy unaffected by another anonymous addendum.

"A Time to Love" (due in stores Tuesday) actually springs to life more often than might be expected, starting off with the cinematic, faintly Latin beat that drives "If Your Love Can Not Be Moved" like a polyrhythmic Quincy Jones production. On "Please Don't Hurt My Baby," male and female choruses liven things up as they scold the unfaithful protagonists, and "Positivity" has an early Jackson 5 perkiness.

But it doesn't add up to enough to overcome the somnolence and benign aimlessness that define the ballad-heavy, 15-song collection, whose guest performers include Prince, India.Arie and Paul McCartney. Wonder's voice has taken on a huskiness that restricts his signature elasticity, and his newest exercises in the orchestral soul style that he helped pioneer are largely generic.

He does instill some urgency into such pleas for justice and brotherhood as "Shelter in the Rain" and the title song. As always, his heart's in the right place, but his pop brilliance has dimmed to the level of mere mortals.

Richard Cromelin

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.

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