Scott D. Paulin
November 14, 2003 AT 05:00 AM EST

Along with Clay Aiken, Josh Groban is a musical poster boy for a post-ironic age, his voice earnestly suggesting Deeply Authentic Emotion. And if the lyrics are in Italian, he must really mean them, right?

There’s no doubt that the 22-year-old Groban can sing. His rich baritone raises the occasional goose pimple even on sentiment-resistant flesh. But he hasn’t yet found the ideal direction in which to channel his undeniable talent. Though ”Closer” is superior to his self-titled ’01 debut, Groban still lacks the personality to transcend banal material, and all the bombastic production in the world can’t win that battle for him.

Groban’s CDs are often marketed as ”classical crossover,” but that’s a red herring. Symphonic accompaniment does not an opera singer make, any more than the gospel choir on ”You Raise Me Up” makes Groban a preacher. Mixing Europop with Broadway-style melodrama, ”Closer”’s easy-listening formula is spiced with world-music gestures (uilleann pipes, Spanish guitars, ”exotic” vocal melismas) and a pinch of soundtrack ambiance.

These colorful touches provide variety where his depressingly predictable approach cannot. His vocal ardor implies vaguely romantic sentiments, but rarely does he communicate specific engagement with a song. The beautiful noises he makes are nearly interchangeable, and the foreign languages seem like camouflage: If half the time we don’t know what he’s emoting about, the sameness chafes less.

Moments, and even whole songs, fulfill Groban’s promise. ”Il Postino (Mi Mancherai)” is subtle and genuinely affecting, with Joshua Bell’s beguiling violin circling around the voice. Although ”Broken Vow” is outrageously cliched, the ballad’s stock situation somehow propels Groban to real drama.

But Edith Piaf’s ”Hymne a l’Amour”? The French chanteuse’s painful honesty is mocked by Groban’s ordinary pleasantness. And though the three cuts cowritten by the singer show ambition, the results blend all too well with their surroundings. Ultimately, an enervating hour spent with ”Closer” begs the question: Closer to what?

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