A masterclass in polished soul balladry.
Daryl Easlea 2011-03-01
By 1983, Lionel Richie had become Motown’s biggest star almost by default. With Stevie Wonder always a law unto himself when it came to releasing albums and Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson all departing the imprint, a significant release was needed in the label’s much-lauded 25th year.
Jackson’s Thriller was the new high water-mark in commercial pop/soul. Richie, arguably Jackson’s nearest rival at that point, had seen Jackson return to his old label for one night only on Motown’s 25th Anniversary in May that year and upstage everybody with his version of Billie Jean. Although his self-titled debut solo album from 1982 had been a confident step away from the Commodores, Richie knew that the bar had been raised for his second album on which he was currently working.
Richie stepped up to the challenge and created Can’t Slow Down, an album that became almost as ubiquitous as Jackson’s landmark. Made by around 50 people, it is one of the smoothest, most closely produced albums of the 80s.
Can’t Slow Down is very good indeed, Richie’s last true moment as a cutting-edge balladeer. Stuck on You is in the line of Commodores love songs Sail On and Easy; Penny Lover and The Only One are sweet and beguiling. Although it became a laughing stock in some quarters because of its video with the blind girl making a statue of the singer’s head out of modelling clay, album closer Hello showcased the craft that Richie had made his mark of quality.
And although virtually all of his old Commodores grit had been worn smooth, there was still a modicum of spikiness in the title-track, Running with the Night and the late night soul of Love Will Find a Way, is like the musical equivalent of cooking a gourmet meal – a drizzle of piano here, a pinch of synthesizer, there; tasteful, and sweet.
Released just ahead of the album, All Night Long (All Night) is one of the last great Motown singles. Using a lilting, infectious rhythm and a mumbo-jumbo breakdown, Richie created a dance masterpiece.
Can’t Slow Down was, of course, a huge hit, and went on to sell over eight million copies and garnered sundry Grammys. It further established Lionel Richie as the go-to ballad singer for millions, and, unlike many other records made in the mid-80s, is still very listenable.