[18 July 2003]
I’m ashamed at just how much I’m enjoying the Deluxe Edition of Lionel Richie‘s Can’t Slow Down. While the music on it is slick, commercial, and overly sentimental, it’s still catchy as hell and executed with an incredible amount of artistry. Originally released in 1983, the album was the biggest success of the ex-Commodore’s solo career, with each of its five singles—“All Night Long”, “Penny Lover”, “Stuck on You”, “Running with the Night”, and “Hello”—reaching the Top Ten. Although Richie’s career has since stalled, at the time he was probably the No. 2 black male artist in America, right behind Michael Jackson, whose Thriller had been released a year earlier and seems to have provided a blueprint of sorts for Richie’s success.
Like Jackson, Richie was a former member of a successful Motown act trying to carve out a distinctive solo career. Thriller was Jackson’s second solo album as an adult, and coming after the success of 1979’s Off the Wall, people expected big things from him. Similarly, Richie had already released his self-titled 1982 solo debut to some success, and was expected—especially by Motown head Berry Gordy—to top it. Both Thriller and Can’t Slow Down kick off with energetic dance numbers. Both feature a track incorporating a pseudo-African dialect. Both feature a song with a hard rock guitar solo. Both inspired videos starring onetime Playboy Playmate, Ola Ray. Most importantly, both maintain a balance of light funk romps and elegant ballads designed to appeal to the largest possible audience. Even if Richie’s approach was decidedly more conservative than Jackson’s, he achieved his goal of crossover success and earned hits on the Pop, R&B, Adult Contemporary, and U.K. charts. “Stuck on You”, a song he considered giving to Kenny Rogers, even received airplay on country stations.
It’s no stretch to say that Can’t Slow Down was a landmark album of the 1980s, even if Michael Jackson’s success foreshadowed and overshadowed it. In light of the album’s 20th anniversary and the recent release of the first comprehensive anthology of Richie’s career (The Definitive Collection), it’s an appropriate time for a reissue. And what a reissue it is, set off by extravagant packaging and generous extras. The Deluxe Edition comprises two discs, the first of which contains the original eight-song album, the twelve-inch version of “All Night Long”, the seven-inch mix of “Penny Lover” and instrumental versions of “All Night Long” and “Penny Lover”. The second disc is devoted entirely to demos, alternate takes, working masters, and studio improvisations. Much of the bonus material is superfluous and features Richie mumbling half-finished lyrics to largely finished music that doesn’t differ dramatically from what’s on the album. Given the original album’s short running time, it would have been wisest to pare the set down to a single disc, adding the previously unheard songs to the end of the original album and omitting the demos, instrumentals, and alternate mixes. However, there is some fine material on disc two. Although its lyrics seem to be unfinished, the previously unreleased “Ain’t No Sayin’ No” has an appealing pseudo-Caribbean bounce similar to “All Night Long”, while “Can’t Find Love” is an adept A/C ballad. “Tell Me” is a surprisingly funky number (surprising because it’s co-written with schlockmeister David Foster) that could have better balanced the ballads on the album. The minute-long snippet titled “The Groove (Interlude)”, although unfinished, also hints at another funky track that might have been. Another minute-long fragment, the hidden track called “Blues”, is a jazzy piano and bass piece over which Richie scats. These tracks, while by no means fully realized, imply a musical diversity that Richie did not fully exploit on the finished album.
As far as sound quality, this is one reissue that was done right. The album was digitally remastered from the original analog tapes by Kevin Reeves and sounds very warm and rich. The enclosed booklet is also top-notch. It features photos, lyrics, a list of singles and their chart positions, comprehensive recording details on the bonus tracks, and an impressive seven-page essay by Steven Ivory. Based on interviews with Richie and co-producer James Anthony Carmichael, it provides a vast supply of information on the making of the album that will interest even casual fans intrigued by the process of record making. Then again, anyone with an interest in the art of record production, the intricacies of songcraft, or the history of popular music will find something to treasure in Can’t Slow Down: the music itself.