American Idol has long since lost any credibility as a star-making machine, but way back in 2003, hearts were on fire for Ruben Studdard. The very fact that he's been able to sustain a marginal career while people like Taylor Hicks and Kris Allen are all but forgotten speaks to his talent. Though it took five albums, Studdard's solid new disc "Letters From Birmingham" finally delivers on that Idol promise.

"It's a relationship progression I think most people have gone through," Studdard revealed. "The album starts with the introduction, then it goes to the courtship, to romantic love. Then it also goes into the hardships and the dissolution of the relationship."

If Studdard were Madonna famous, the music press would be making silly comparisons between "Letters From Birmingham" and late-70s Marvin Gaye. Last year's announcement of his impending divorce from his wife would've lent an air of heartbreaking expectation to his next album. The low-rent quality of Studdard's professional life means nobody is paying attention, which only serves to make the album sublime. This is a guy who met his (now ex) wife at a record signing in a Wal-mart. That's a unique perspective on love.

The album is bookended by a series of "letters", the first of which (aptly titled "Letters #1) serves as a perfect introduction to the heartbreak to follow. "Turn You Out" starts the actual album off with a Cee-Lo style wave of misplaced optimism.

Lead-off single "June 28th (I'm Single)" is actually making some headway on the Billboard Chart, which is a lot more than Jordin Sparks is managing these days. It's a warped Motown ballad in the best possible way.

"Ladies, I'm single/so when you see me on the street/don't be scared to speak/I'm a need another lady," he sings.

"Letters From Birmingham" includes a couple of well-placed covers. "Rock Wit'cha" is an old Bobby Brown song, while fans of the Gene Wilder version of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" will certainly remember "Pure Imagination." The fact that they both fit pretty perfectly into what is essentially a concept album is a testament to Studdard's impeccable taste, no doubt helped by his appearances on American Idol.

"I broke my piggy bank so me and my mom could go to a New Edition concert together. Those kind of personal stories and feelings come through in the music. Not only that, it was written by one of the greatest songwriters of our time, Babyface. So it was really a no-brainer," Studdard said.

There are, of course, a couple of weak moments here. "Wear Me" is a little bit too cute and cuddly, for instance. Taken as a whole though, "Letters From Birmingham" is a remarkable leap forward and a gut-check for Studdard's fellow Idol brethren. Step up your game, Taylor Hicks.