Marc Anthony is an artist who usually cuts albums in three weeks to a month. But it took him almost nine months -- more than with any other project -- to wrap up his return to salsa after his successf

Marc Anthony is an artist who usually cuts albums in three weeks to a month. But it took him almost nine months -- more than with any other project -- to wrap up his return to salsa after his successful English-language debut in 1999.

It was not due to capriciousness, and nine months is not long by today's pop standards. Rather, Anthony felt that possibly for the first time in his relatively short and mercurial career, he not only had the luxury of time but of inspiration, ease, and total artistic liberty. And so, he titled his album "Libre" (Free) not after a track but after a state of mind.

"I think it [is] the first time in my life, ever, that I'm completely satisfied," Anthony reveals. "I've done so many things, I've seen so many things, I've met so many people, worked so many places, had incredible milestone moments. But I never quite felt [like it was] what I was born to do. When I started this salsa album, I immediately called my wife and said, 'I have this amazing feeling. This is it. This is it.' She said, 'What are you talking about?' I said, 'This is what all this work has been for -- to go into this project.'"

Libre, due out Nov. 20, is Anthony's most personal work and an album he arranged, produced, and mixed in its entirety, working with longtime keyboardist Juanito Gonzalez as co-producer in what he calls "a match made in heaven." It will be released as a joint effort between Sony Discos -- which will take over the bulk of Spanish-language promotion -- and Columbia Records, which will handle the general market.

"Libre" is 100% salsa, sung in Spanish (Anthony considers singing salsa in English "sacrilege") and works as both a departure from Anthony's previous work and a logical continuation of it.

Like all of Anthony's salsa albums, the foundation of "Libre" is love songs with a musical and lyrical edge that decidedly do not fall into the "romantic salsa" sub-genre, known for its insinuating, often nearly erotic lyrics and stylized accompaniments. And like his previous albums, "Libre" capitalizes on Anthony's extraordinary voice, limiting choruses and expanding on soneos (vocal improvisations).

Songs were written mostly by a host of writers whose work Anthony had recorded before and from whom he had specifically requested tracks, including Alejandro Jaen (who co-wrote the single "Celos"), Fernando Osorio, and newcomer Gian Marco, who wrote "El Ultimo Adios," the track recorded by dozens of Latin artists to raise funds for the families of the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.

But in a radical departure for a salsa album, Anthony has a co-writing credit on all but one of the tracks because he arranged and wrote the improvisatory soneo sections that make up most of the latter part of each song.

"I articulated this point before I brought anybody aboard," Anthony explains. "Writing is writing. I said, 'I'm going to use your song, and it's two-and-a-half minutes long, but the song ends up being five minutes.' Before, that was chalked up to arranging. But no. When you write pop music, if you come up with one line you get a songwriting credit. In salsa, even though I wrote entire coros, I didn't get credit."

According to Anthony, despite the songwriters' assurances that they agreed to give him the co-writing credits, less than a month before the album's release date, three writers backed out of the agreement. Their songs were dropped from the disc, resulting in an album of nine songs instead of 12.

Still, the final edit of "Libre" is Anthony's most complex work to date, drawing from a great variety of world rhythms and using multiple instrumental layerings that go far beyond the standard horns and keyboards. Many tracks start slowly or with lengthy instrumental introductions ("Barco a la Deriva," for example, begins with an Andean flute intro, "Hasta que Vuelvas Conmigo" starts as a classic guitar-based romantic trio), expands, and finally locks into the clave (the salsa beat) to become hard-hitting salsa.

Anthony was so open to different ideas that, in a spur-of-the-moment occurrence, guitarist Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics came in and jammed on a couple of songs. Other artists, including Paul Simon and Eric Clapton, had also expressed an interest in participating but had scheduling conflicts.

"Had I had an extra three or four weeks, it would have been an album with interesting collaborations," Anthony muses. "But, next time. It's really interesting to see the musical interest from these amazing artists that I've admired so many years. It's a new day."

"Libre" might not be your typical salsa album, but then, Anthony is one of the few artists in the genre whose overwhelming popularity and musicality give him license to tinker with formulas.

"When an artist has such a big name, he can get away with a lot. He can change things," says Jesus Salsa, programming VP for radio network SBS. "There has not been another salsero [in recent years] who's broken sales records like he has. And 'Celos' is kick-ass. He has that winning formula again. Even if it's a salsa album, I think that ballad stations will also play it -- that's how big he's become in Spanish."

"Libre"" is not only Anthony's first salsa album with his new label after a long and finally rocky association with indie RMM ended, but it is also his first studio album since his triple-platinum English-language debut in 1999, a release that established Anthony as a force to be reckoned with in the mainstream pop market.

Anthony's visibility was bolstered by an HBO live concert special and his roles in the Broadway musical "The Capeman" and a series of films including "Bringing Out the Dead," starring Nicolas Cage. And in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Anthony performed "America the Beautiful" live at New York's Yankee Stadium during a Day of Prayer and also played in a series of benefits, including TNT's Come Together: A Night for John Lennon's Words & Music, a concert that was organized in memory of the former Beatle.

At the same time, Anthony's following in the Latin market remains fiercely loyal, and his compilation "Desde un Principio," released in 2000, is still on the Billboard Top Latin Albums chart. No wonder, then, that given tropical music's flagging sales, "Libre" has become one of the most-awaited releases of the season.

Indeed, Anthony's strength in both the tropical and pop market places is so well-established, "Libre" was originally going to be released simultaneously with his next English-language album, which is now scheduled for a January 2002 release.

"This music is so important to Marc," says Will Botwin, executive VP/GM for Columbia Records, "[that] he personally made it a mission to finish this record and put it out first."

"I think this is my opus. I honestly believe that," Anthony remarks. "It was almost like, when I finished I almost collapsed because I didn't realize how high-strung out I was. If this is the boat that brings me down, I'll go down gladly."

To promote the album, Anthony has appearances are scheduled with Rosie O'Donnell (Nov. 15) and Jay Leno (Nov. 20), as well as with Christina and Don Francisco on Spanish-language TV. Extensive radio interviews are also on the itinerary, and promotion and media dates are planned for Miami, Puerto Rico, Los Angeles, and New York. And on Dec. 8, Columbia will release a DVD of Anthony's Madison Square Garden HBO special.