By Josh Tyrangiel
August 15, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

There are a few pop performers — your Sheryl Crows, your Elton Johns — with the talent and savvy to stay relevant for decades. There are others — your Lou Begas, your Afromen — who have no talent but great timing and hold our attention for a single moment. Then there’s a fuzzy area populated by folks like Kenny Loggins and Pat Benatar. In their primes, each had a solid run of hits, but their primes were during the musical trough known as the early ’80s. Benatar and her bantam squint ruled the early days of MTV more or less unopposed until Madonna came along and wiped her from the planet. Loggins and his sexless falsetto had to contend with Michael Jackson and Prince. Rather than compete, he put his generic pleasantness to work for the hyper-earnest soundtrack industry and landed his only No. 1 single — the theme to Footloose.

What are we to make of these middling hitmakers? Were they stigmatized by the tackiness of their era or just criminally lucky? If nothing else, the arrival of new albums from Loggins and Benatar proves that both are committed pros. But Loggins’ It’s About Time and Benatar’s Go prove a bit more than that. It turns out Loggins is a pretty agile songwriter, even if he’s a long shot to have another hit. Benatar, meanwhile, still has the fury that launched a thousand headbands. If only she still had her ear for rock & roll.

The germane cultural fact about Kenny Loggins is that he’s found the right vessel for his sincerity: New Age mysticism. His 1997 book, The Unimaginable Life, reveals that he met his wife while she was administering a colonic (to him) and describes their nudist wedding party. Inevitably, the lyrics on It’s About Time tend toward the sharing of feelings, the watching of sunsets, and the making of love. The title track has a polyrhythmic sheen and heavily affected backup singers chanting ”Hope! Faith! Life! Love!” It, and a good third of the album, have the nausea-inducing feel of a whole-cast number from The Lion King.

But pick your way through the schlock and there are real live contemporary hits to be found. ”Alive ‘N’ Kickin”’ is about being ignored as a singer but rocking on anyway. ”Two thousand over-nights later and I’m still not on the radio,” he yelps, and his voice is crisp and tense over the jaunty country-pop hook. ”With This Ring” is an R&B slow jam, and a surprisingly credible one. The lyrics aren’t much, but Loggins uses the entirety of his range and a solid melody line to do a pretty good loverman turn.

These songs deserve airplay, and they’d get it if they were sung by Toby Keith and Brian McKnight. But because they’re Kenny’s, they’ll probably just fade away. Pop music isn’t just about hooks — it’s about image, and except for Wyoming, Kenny Loggins is the biggest square in America. I know that’s not very nice, and that pop music isn’t just a beauty pageant, it’s an art form, but it’s an art form we use to define ourselves for other people — other people we want to sleep with. And the baggage Kenny Loggins brings with him is not particularly erotic.

Pat Benatar seems far better positioned for a comeback. You can almost see her dueting with Gwen Stefani — Benatar 2.0 — and making an encore leap into the top 10. But she won’t get there with the tunes from Go. Neil Giraldo — Benatar’s husband, guitarist, and producer — cowrote all 11 tracks, and you get what he was thinking. His wife has always been at her best mining a slender emotional vein: anger at being betrayed. (See ”Love Is a Battlefield,” ”Heartbreaker,” ”You Better Run,” etc.) So Giraldo gives her a bunch of songs about that exact feeling. The most successful of them — ”Go,” ”Brave,” ”Please Don’t Leave Me” — allow Benatar to show off her wonderfully elastic voice, and it’s fun to hear her stretch out on the choruses until she gets that familiar gravelly purr at the bottom of each breath.

The problem is the production. Go is so full of slick power chords and bloated guitar solos that it sounds like Benatar wandered into a Steve Vai session. This is a particularly weird flaw. You might expect Benatar to make a nostalgia album, but you’d think the nostalgia would be for her own era, not the days of Motley Crue and Poison. The few tracks that don’t build toward cheesy guitar moments have frantic pace changes, as if to cover for their absence of a melody. Loggins may lack the right look for a comeback, but Benatar lacks the hooks. Can you say duet? It’s About Time: B- Go: C-