Tuesday 22 December 2020

Lionel RICHIE: Back To Front


(#453: 6 June 1992, 6 weeks)


Track listing: Do It To Me/My Destiny/Love, Oh Love/All Night Long (All Night)/Easy*/Still*/Endless Love**/Running With The Night/Dancing On The Ceiling/Sail On*/Hello/Truly/Penny Lover/Stuck On You/Say You, Say Me/Three Times A Lady*


*The Commodores

*Lionel Richie & Diana Ross


(Author’s Note: This piece is based on the “international” version of the album; the original edition omits “Dancing On The Ceiling” and “Stuck On You” from the otherwise unchanged running order)


Listening to Back To Front yesterday evening, I noted how its music’s warmth offset the outside cold and wind so…efficiently. That goes a long way towards explaining how this compilation went quadruple platinum in Britain; in 1992 it was outsold only by Stars.


Yes, Lionel Richie’s cosy carpet-slipper voice fulfils a function similar to that of Perry Como a generation earlier (or, more precisely and Alabama-centrically, Nat “King” Cole) and his songs warm the craving cockles as assuredly as a shot of Glenfiddich. The rhythm is resonant but not dominant, and the carpets of keyboards and guitars absorb all uncertainty in an affable embrace, even when these songs circle around the question of uncertainty (“Easy,” “Hello”).


As a compilation, Back To Front is subjectively soothing but objectively wanting. Certainly, all the Lionel Richie songs you are likely to know are here, in a sequence designed to be only minimally disruptive (the guitar on “Running With The Night”) and for the sizeable demographic who like having all the hits in one place, preferably on compact disc, and desire music to fulfil the function of amiable wallpaper, it did its job prettily and perfectly.


But it doesn’t quite manage to outline what Lionel Richie’s art is all about. The underlying concept is sound – let’s compile the solo hits, throw in some familiar old Commodores tunes and give listeners an idea of what he’s up to now – but the result is dissolute and incomplete, not really giving an accurate picture of the man or the group of which he was once a key member.


I am necessarily indulging in some pussyfooting here since I have already written about some of these key songs, and there is an unquestionably and infinitely superior and far more definitive compilation of Richie and The Commodores’ works on the distant horizon (entry #1049). I will merely note here that of the three new songs with which this album was frontloaded (hence, probably, the album’s title), “My Destiny” is the only memorable one. “Do It To Me” is a slow jam for the ladies, dutifully rhymes “fire” with “desire” and even throws in some product placement (“Oh, you’re my Motown lover”). “Love, Oh Love” is a portentous “We Are The World”-type exercise in can’t-we-all-just-get-alongism which in its careful avoidance of anything other than banal generalities rivals Peter Sellers’ “Party Political Speech”; you would think that, recorded in Los Angeles in the wake of the 1992 riots, Richie might have wanted to name some names and point some fingers.


Added to that is the fact that only “All Night Long,” “Running With The Night” and the gloriously daft eighties bubblegum of “Dancing On The Ceiling” see him at anything approaching uptempo; otherwise it’s ballads all the way (and yes, he does sound like Kenny Rogers at times). Oh, and the brief middle-eight of “Say You, Say Me” – and after half a lifetime, I still haven’t a clue what he’s going on about in that song; yet to many, it really did not matter at all.