For nearly two decades, Will Downing has had a unique relationship with his overwhelmingly female listeners. Even among the dozens of "lover men" singers who have created meaningful careers during that period, Downing has established and maintained a level of intimacy with fans that is unmatched. Luther Vandross was arguably the greatest pure singer of his generation, but was more about embracing his songs than his listeners. And Brian McKnight has ridden a wave of sensual ballads for 15 years, but in song after song he's made it clear he's there for tonight only and won't be around in the morning. And while Downing has not shied away from the bedroom in his songs, he's expressed love beyond the physical, making a holistic connection with his women that reaches a depth that his peers either can't or simply haven't matched.
So the themes of After Tonight, Will Downing's Peak Records debut, should seem familiar to his fans. It's all about love, almost all of it romantic. This album will likely receive ancillary attention because it is Will's first release since being diagnosed with the rare muscular disease, Polymyositis, which has sidelined him much of the last year. But his physical ailments haven't affected his music or its thesis, save perhaps for the strikingly beautiful Gospel ballad, "God Is So Amazing," a melodic gem that is made even better by Downing's restrained performance. It may be a simple statement of faith, but the song takes on special meaning in the context of the challenges Downing has faced in 2007, and stands as one of the most moving songs of his career.
The rest of After Tonight follows the template of 2005's Soul Symphony and ranks among the better discs Downing has released. After modest sidetracks over his career, Will appears to have found a strong place musically, and his recent albums on GRP and Verve have shown a increased level of self-assurdness that has taken them to a higher level than much of his late 90s work. He brings this confident swagger to After Tonight, beginning with the mildly funky "Will's Groove" and "Fantasy" all the way through the late night ballad "All I Need Is You," never oversinging, but letting his sensual baritone gently ride over the generally strong material. Downing has routinely shown the ability to use wonderfully chosen cover songs as anchors on his album, and here two excellent choices, Phyllis Hyman's "No One Can Love You More" and Bill Withers' often overlooked gem "You Just Can't Smile It Away," serve that role, providing a completeness to this short (nine songs) but uniformly strong collection.
The press that has been given to Will Downing's physical ailments this year may cause the spotlight to shine a little brighter on After Tonight, but the album can stand up to the increased scrutiny. It is another characteristically enjoyable outing by the finest romantic male singer today. No doubt his women will agree.
By Chris Rizik