Michael Bolton sits calmly at a ritzy New York hotel restaurant, contemplating his potato leek soup as he hears a Conan O'Brien joke that had him as a punch line.
Something about Mariah Carey's being offered millions to leave her recording contract - which means Bolton must look forward to becoming a billionaire.
It's along the lines of another O'Brien monologue joke a few years back: "Michael Bolton said yesterday he now wants to become an opera singer. Which is great, because now my Dad and I can hate the same kind of music."
But where once Bolton would have lashed out, as he did so famously at the Grammys a decade ago, calling his critics cruel and rude and no more talented than monkeys on typewriters, today he's the picture of serenity. "You learn to laugh about it," Bolton says.
And he finds something positive about the situation. "When you think about it, who are they going to go after?" he says. "They can't go after unknowns."
Bolton's albums of romantic pain and joys have sold tens of millions of copies. He has amassed a loving audience that has followed him into forays into opera and further soul covers (though he's already been sued once by the Isley Brothers for covering too closely on one of his originals).
But for his first album of new material in four years, coming out today, Bolton has jumped from his longtime label Columbia, which signed him when he was a hard-rock singer.
His new home is Jive Records, better known for Britney Spears, 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys.
On the Jive Records Web site, a clean-cut, short-haired Bolton at 49 resembles a buff older chaperone amid Jive stars such as Aaron Carter and Petey Pablo.
"I'll be the Backstreet Man," he says, making his own joke.
But, his new album, Only a Woman Like You, continues his reputation of creating love songs that go right to the heart of women with a voice that can scale the heights but chooses increasingly to hang back.
Its title track is in the top 10 of adult contemporary charts, and Italian, French and Spanish versions of the song have become popular.
His album doesn't include rap interludes, Neptune remixes or Ashanti duets to pander to Top 40. "I cannot make a record that sounds like I'm trying to fit a shape," he says.
Bolton says that, although he built a career that scored 15 Top 40 hits, and a pair of No. 1 songs that also earned him two Grammys, "I also have a polarizing effect. You either love what I do or hate it."
Bolton says he felt he had to leave Columbia after 20 years because the company didn't adequately promote his Timeless: The Classics Vol. 2 in 1999.
"Timeless 2 was the last album I owed Columbia," he says, adding, "We did sell 52 million albums together. We had a tremendous run."
Bolton is increasing his international approach, too, even as he tries to stay true to an audience he imagines has grown with him.
Songs such as "All That You Deserve" reflect a new maturity in the writer. The song, in which he wishes a former lover well, was "something I don't think I would have appreciated five years ago."
And as well as these may play with fans who are his own age, their emotional content may translate to other ages too.
"You know, when a 23- or 25-year-old girl approaches me on the street and I'm getting ready for them to say 'My mother loves you,' what I get now is 'Oh, I love your "How Can We Be Lovers (If We Can't Be Friends)." ' And I'm thinking 'How do they know that one?' And they say, 'We grew up on it.'"
In his own life, his daughters - 22, 24 and 26 - are grown and out of the house. He has moved from his obsession with softball to golf, a sport he says reflects his newfound calm. Singing is still his focus, though, and he plans a four-month American tour starting Aug. 2. It's in singing where he sees his longest future. "For me, I look to guys like Ray Charles and Tony Bennett, guys who are in their 70s and sing and work," he says. "I want to do that if I ever grow up."
As for Mariah Carey's troubles, he says, "She's only a hit away from being huge again."
Roger Catlin is pop music critic for the Hartford Courant, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.