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Lionel Richie

Can't Slow Down  Hear it Now

RS: 4of 5 Stars Average User Rating: 4.5of 5 Stars

1991

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Lionel Richie exemplifies the spirit of Motown today. He's not an original talent like Stevie Wonder or a historical emblem like Diana Ross or a sensational performer like Michael Jackson. Instead, he's chairman of the board of corporate pop-soul, masterfully synthesizing everything we love about Motown, a label whose style–past and present–is itself a canny blend of post-rock & roll pop styles. Until very recently, Richie has mostly been associated with a string of soupy ballads, but with Can't Slow Down, he has broadened the scope of his music in an effort to please all the people all the time. Most of the time, he does.

Certainly, for those of us truly bored by songs like "Truly," the hit single "All Night Long (All Night)" was a real breakthrough for Lionel Richie. Not so much a ripoff of Stevie Wonder as a loving salute to his increasingly internationalist viewpoint, the tune uses steel drums, cool vocal harmonies, Latin horns and multilingual chanting to suggest a musical rainbow coalition of American pop, Afro-Cuban music and carnival time in Rio. Richie sings in a faintly Caribbean accent that again echoes Wonder, whose tribute to Bob Marley "Master Blaster (Jammin')" brought reggae inflections into mainstream pop in a way Marley himself never managed to do (and "Master Blaster" is clearly the prototype for Richie's Latin hustle).

But all these little cops are hardly objectionable–they add to the fun, and they're part of Richie's method throughout Can't Slow Down. "Penny Lover," a very different kind of song, grabs you just as immediately as "All Night Long," and for the same reasons. It's a brilliant pastiche of familiar pop fragments–the melody of Peaches and Herb's "Reunited," phrases from Dionne Warwick's "Walk On By," the harmonic elegance of the Drifters and the lovesick croon of Sam Cooke. You loved all those things before, and you'll love them again. Sound crass? Sure it is, but it's an honorable tradition among the staunch eclectics who make up pop's second rank, from Billy Joel to August Darnell: if you can't innovate, imitate. And the more honest they are about their sources, the better.

When he was fronting the Commodores, Richie usually took a break during the funk numbers. And though hits like "Lady (You Bring Me Up)" and the George Benson-ish "Serves You Right," from last year's Lionel Richie, indicated that he was no stranger to a groove, it's a delightful surprise to find that "All Night Long" isn't the token dance track on Can't Slow Down. The title cut shamelessly borrows the seductive rhythm hook from Michael Jackson's "Wanna Be Startin' Something" and builds it into an urgent musical portrait of a guy who keeps his motor running at all times, in more ways than one. That song is almost exclusively a collaboration between Richie and David Cochrane, who provides all the instrumentation on synthesizer, except for his own bluesy rock guitar. Cochrane is as much of a chameleon on guitar as Richie is vocally; his jazzy solo spices up the slower, sexier groove number "Love Will Find a Way," though for "Running with the Night" (cowritten with Brill Building veteran Cynthia Weil), Richie selected Toto's Steve Lukather to perform the obligatory rock-guitar solo–shades of "Beat It." This album (and I suspect it's only the first of many such pop-soul albums) is inevitably haunted by Michael Jackson's Thriller, with its airy Quincy Jones sound, its ostentatious versatility, its sheer patina of success.

Of course, Lionel Richie hasn't completely abandoned the balladeering that has won him one of the widest crossover audiences in pop-soul. His historical distinction, after all, is that he is the first composer-performer to come out of the Motown stable who has been influenced as much by Neil Diamond as by Smokey Robinson, as much by Crosby, Stills and Nash as by the Temptations. "Stuck on You" shows off the country side of Richie, which he shares with Southern soul singers like Gladys Knight and Brook Benton, while "Hello" is the latest in a long line of typical Richie ballads like "Still" and "Truly." My objection to these songs is that they not only sound identical, but they have the same message: "I love you," in terms no more complicated or original than that. Joni Mitchell has made a whole career out of examining romance through metaphor, anecdote and self-analysis, making the oldest subject in pop fresh again and again. And if someone like Paul Simon opened an album with "Can't Slow Down" and ended it with "Hello," you can bet that in between would be an interrelated suite of songs about the myriad consequences of a man's sexual restlessness.

Lionel Richie doesn't have that kind of verbal ingenuity or conceptual cleverness. His lyrics are blunt, simple, functional, even clichéd. But he doesn't aspire to art with a capital A, anyway; he probably figures it would exclude too many people. He is an ambassador of good will, and his across-the-board appeal shows he succeeds. He may spend an awful lot of time putting on a bland face, doing the musical equivalent of shaking hands and kissing babies. But Can't Slow Down proves he can also get down and boogie, all night long. (RS 413)


DON SHEWEY





(Posted: Jan 19, 1984)

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