Recharged by a sell-out tour last year with Tina Turner, and perhaps emboldened by a one-off collaboration with the Backstreet Boys (which, due to industry politics, didn't see the light of day), Lionel Richie sounds, on Renaissance like a man determined to reclaim his spot in the pantheon of dance-pop funksters and schmaltzy balladeers. And indeed, all the ingredients are in place. Getting help from a team of fancy-pants producers (most notably Rodney Jerkins, the studio wizard behind hits by Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston), Richie crafts musical exercises that aren't so much songs as they are constructs slick, polished nuggets that embody the notion of style over substance.
Beginning with the Giorgio Moroder-inspired "Angel" (which sounds like an outtake from Cher's Believe CD), Renaissance moves in predictable fashion between cliché-stoked love ballads and synthetic, mirror-ball funk. At its best, as on the Caribbean flavored "Cinderella" and the snappy, syncopated "Tonight," the CD drops any pretense of "message" in favor of pure, percolating rhythms. Trouble is, such moments are the exception rather than the rule. For the most part, Richie continues to emote sweet, vacuous nothings more befitting a soap opera scribe than a songwriter. Fraught with lines such as "One kiss, intrigue/ You're all alone with me" ("Dance the Night Away") and "Just the way that you are/ You're the one my shining star" ("Don't You Ever Go Away"), Renaissance is about as substantive, lyric-wise, as a Hallmark card.
To be fair, Richie is nothing if not consistent, and indeed Renaissance sits well alongside the best of his multiplatinum '80s work. Moreover, no less a songwriter than Vic Chesnutt once said (by way of defending Paul McCartney) that "old people need music, too." Renaissance is quintessential Lionel Richie. Whether that's a good or bad thing lies entirely in the ear of the beholder.
When he's not writing, Russell Hall can often be found bicycling in the beautiful foothills of northwest South Carolina.