Two of my biggest music heroes have returned with new albums in the last couple of weeks and while it might seem unlikely to put these guys side-by-side, there are a few things beyond longevity and massive success that align them. For starters, there are still Bruce Springsteen fans smarting from Lionel Richie taking out the Album of the Year Grammy in 1984 for Can’t Slow Down over Born In The USA.
Commerical rivals then and now, both Springsteen and Richie have debuted at or near the top of the charts with their latest albums Wrecking Ball (Springsteen – US #1) and Tuskegee (Richie – US #2). Looking at both their careers as a whole, admittedly it is Springsteen who has taken more risks, notably sandwiching the stark Nebraska between the bar-room rock of The River and the bombast of Born In The USA, but that is just the simplistic narrative.
Indeed, part of the appeal of the best of Springsteen’s albums was the range of material on the one release, with the haunting and sad Downbound Train from Born In The USA just one case in point.
As for Richie, he has always been so much more than the balladeer his astounding radio hit list suggests to the casual fan. Taking into consideration all his work with the Commodores as well, Richie has a catalogue of blistering funk (Look What You’ve Done To Me, Fancy Dancer, Funky Situation), gospel (Jesus Is Love, Heroes), R&B (Just To Be Close To You, Just Go), pop (Lady You Bring Me Up, You Are, Hello), soul (Zoom) and once again, country (Sail On, My Love, Stuck On You, Deep River Woman). I say once again, because that’s precisely what his new album Tuskegee is about: countrified new duets of classic Richie songs.
Just trying to categorise that small number of Richie songs by genre is ridiculous because the beauty of so many of them was their cross-over appeal. Sail On is my favourite example because in parts it is pure country and the Tuskegee, Alabama roots are there for all to see. But listen to the chorus and especially the extended fade-out and the R&B starts to come through.
Needlessly comparing them, but for the fun of it all the same, both Springsteen and Richie are amongst the finest pop-songwriters of all time. Their longevity is equal and while Springsteen’s artistry is deeper, his subject matter more varied and more about his ability to hold a mirror up to the warts and all realities of American life, there’s no-one who writes a love song like Lionel Richie. And with that, it’s hard to argue which is more important.
So here are two songs to enjoy. First up is Death To My Hometown from Wrecking Ball. This is angry Springsteen at his best, both referencing his earlier (and gentler) My Hometown from 1984 and musically with its paradoxically joyous Irish foot-stomp feel, his Seeger Sessions work a few years ago.
As for Richie, I really can’t go past the Commodores’ classic Sail On which now features as a Tim McGraw duet on Tuskegee. This new album is marketing genius in that Richie’s songs have always had an element of country in them and pairing himself with country legends (and up and comers) gives him a whole new audience, as well as bringing back the old fans who want to hear the new interpretations.