Michael Bolton Sings The Blues

Michael Bolton, whose "Time, Love & Tenderness" was the No. 1 album in M America last week, has two stories he likes to repeat about himself One is that after he sang Otis Redding's untouchable "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay" at the Apollo Theatre, Redding's widow tearfully declared his version her all-time favorite. The other is that back when he opened heavy-metal bills for Ozzy Osbourne and Krokus, the fans would thrust their fists in the air and scream, "Bolton rules!"

These are handy anecdotes, testimonials to a life well spent. But we defer to the wisdom of others-particularly to Ozzy Osbourne fans - only when their ideas support our own, and these stories say a lot about how Bolton (ne Bolotin) likes to present himself. He is, as any fool can read, part soul man, part heavy-metal dude, and not just some guy with funny hair who croons torch songs for Lite-FM. That's on paper, anyway,

"Time, Love & Tenderness," though, smacks little of Ozzy and Otis. Bolton is more rightly, as Billboard magazine tagged him, a Neil Diamond for the '90s: a proficient songwriter with the agonized voice to pitch heavy woo to an audience grown too old for Guns N' Roses. If he were any more middle of the road, he'd have a white line down his forehead.

But if this is music for adults, it's for a generation that still claims the rock-and-roll verities as its own. Unlike Diamond, Bolton doesn't offer an alternative to rock hysteria, but an apotheosis of it. Within his treacly ballads, he's wild, uninhibited and over-the-top passionate. Though the songs are pure easy listening, Bolton himself isn't mellow.

Bolton, 38, has been around the block. Since he dropped out of high school to play blues in Connecticut bars, he's been a young hopeful, a failed hard-rocker and, after a particularly hard period, a professional songwriter. In the '80s, he turned out ballads for Cher, Laura Branigan, Starship and others. The demographics of rock-and-roll audiences were undergoing a change; the pop standards were no longer jangly AM-radio fare, but ballads. Bolton's own career finally took off in 1987, when he started keeping the slow songs for himself. His first hit, "That's What Love Is All About," plays as well in K mart as it does in the bedroom. Now, as adult contemporary radio, or the softer end of rock, has become the most popular format in America, Bolton is a major pop star.

On "Time, Love & Tenderness," he is an all-purpose love man, armed with a homily for every occasion: he's missing you now and it's driving him crazy; forever isn't long enough to give all his love to you; he doesn't know how he lived without you; he's been a prisoner since the day you found him, etc. Bolton gives pillow talk at F-16 volume. He's a chronicler of the most ordinary love, but that's probably part of his appeal. He gets sweaty rather than clever.

"Time, Love & Tenderness" has its moments. "Love Is a Wonderful Thing," the infectious first single, bounces along with the easy grace of a Memphis soul record. But there's something cloying about Bolton. When his songs call for cries of passion, he often sounds more like he's just plain crying. And he routinely drops one ringer of a soul standard onto each album, as if he were applying for credentials; they're real showoff affairs. This time out it's Percy Sledge's aching "When a Man Loves a Woman." Bolton punishes the song, making every punctuation mark a crescendo, every word a workout. It's all too much. Because subtlety, particularly in love songs, still counts for something.