Remember when Lionel Richie was one of the biggest names in R&B? When Dancing on the Ceiling topped the charts in 1986, Richie was second only to Michael Jackson in crossover appeal, thanks to an impressive run of top 10 singles ''All Night Long,'' ''Hello,'' and the Oscar-winning ''Say You, Say Me,'' among them. These weren't mere commercial successes, either; there was a melodic ingenuity to Richie's work that put him on par with Motown's finest songwriters. At the time, his career momentum seemed unstoppable.
But stop it did. Between writer's block, an embarrassing divorce, and a record company dispute, it took six years for Richie to deliver his next album, and even then the best he could manage was the greatest hits collection Back to Front. When that slid off the charts after barely cracking the top 20, even his fans filed Richie under ''has-been.''
Let's not be hasty, though. Richie's career may be colder than a Minnesota winter, but with Louder Than Words, his first album of new material in a decade, he makes it clear that he hasn't lost his touch. From the singalong charm of ''Ordinary Girl'' to the slow-boil balladry of ''Piece of Love,'' these songs are very much in the vein of his '80s output. In fact, the soulful ''Don't Wanna Lose You'' sounds as if he were back with the Commodores.
But that's the trouble. Though it's only been 10 years since he dominated the charts, Richie's middle-of-the-road rhythm & blues may as well be from another century. It isn't that he can't work a groove; what makes Richie seem so old-fashioned is that he doesn't understand that these days the groove is everything.
Richie does strive for something contemporary. But it's hard to be convinced by the sinuous synth-funk (courtesy of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis) of ''I Wanna Take You Down'' when it's immediately preceded by the countrified ballad ''Still in Love.'' Even the space shuttle couldn't get from Nashville to Minneapolis that quickly.
Still, Richie is only partly to blame. With the rise of rap, and R&B's movement toward a street sensibility and harder beats, crossover became a dirty word. Compared to tough-lovers R. Kelly, Mary J. Blige, or Jodeci, Richie comes across as a fuddy-duddy.
A pity, because even if he hasn't kept up with the times, he has grown. There's a complexity to ''Can't Get Over You'' that wasn't there a decade ago, as Richie's protagonist tries to bridge the gap between what he knows and how he feels. Unlike the simple sentimentality of an early-'80s hit like ''Still,'' Richie goes for emotional ambiguity here, relying on pacing and dynamics to convey the anger and regret mere words could never capture. It's a subtle piece of work, but totally convincing.
Then there's his singing. Where Richie's older hits evoked Barry Manilow, Louder Than Words finds him sounding more like Marvin Gaye, bringing a lush sensuality to the loping rhythms of ''I Wanna Take You Down'' and evoking the jazzy confidence of ''What's Going On'' in ''Change.'' Even better is the sultry ''Piece of Love,'' which finds Richie wading into the sort of soulful backwaters his music hasn't visited since the Commodores left Tuskegee.
Just as ''Piece of Love'' reminds us of Richie's roots, the gutsy delivery he gives ''Say I Do'' defines his new maturity. Had it been left to, say, Janet Jackson, this Jam & Lewis ballad would have been predictable Top 40 fare. But in Richie's hands ''Say I Do'' strikes a deeper chord, begging for commitment in a way that makes the chorus seem less like a melodic ploy than the sort of dramatic payoff his performance demands.
Whether that can convince contemporary radio that Richie is as dope as Janet Jackson remains to be seen. But even if Louder Than Words doesn't put him back on top of the charts, it's proof that Richie is on top of his game.