November 3, 2006

Once Again, Legend is merely pedestrian

Before John Legend released Get Lifted, his 2004 Grammy Award–winning album, he was a studio musician, providing piano and vocal work for the likes of Lauryn Hill, Jay-Z, and Alicia Keys. Impressive connections and formidable talent led Legend to a recording deal with Kanye West’s fledgling label, G.O.O.D. Music. Once at G.O.O.D., Legend began working on his first major studio album, attempting to create the kind of catchy R & B that would appeal to a diverse audience. The result was an album that managed to combine rap, gospel, soul, R&B, and even alternative rock in a collection of songs that are united by their high quality and pop-oriented arrangements.

Once Again is an all-too-appropriate title for his latest album. The mood of the album feels a lot like its predecessor. It has the same emphasis on poppy songs that still turn up on the radio years after they’ve been released. It’s not hard to hear why Legend’s songs are so popular. They’re carried by basic melodies that sound strangely familiar. They’re designed to be easy, inoffensive pleasures.

The first single on the album, the lightly catchy “Save Room,” is a perfect example of Legend’s pop formula in action. Love songs are the bread-and-butter of any R&B artist, and this one echoes the sounds of 1970s era Al Green and Stevie Wonder. The song is ready to take the listener by the ear and carry him on a simple, irresistible melody that is anchored to a lover’s plea for more trust and more appreciation.

Other songs deal with more complex themes. “Stereo,” for instance, is based upon the singer’s resigned acceptance of a woman’s inability to love him for anything else but his musical celebrity. “Coming Home” is his most lyrically powerful composition on the album. In it, Legend offers a first-person account of a soldier’s longing to come back home to his family. After his long absence, the soldier still wonders if “there is a place for me.”

Lyrics, however, are not where Legend’s talents lie. In fact, they’re his most obvious weakness because, despite his formidable talents as a pianist, he has never met a metaphor or cliché that he didn’t like. But triteness is endemic in all but the rarest of love songs. Few lyrics work on paper, but great singers are defined by their ability to interpret and bring new life to the words. It’s not fair to compare a singer like Legend, or really any singer, to somebody like Sam Cooke or Marvin Gaye, but it bears reminding (especially since Legend is so clearly influenced by them) that very few of the songs they were asked to perform were lyrically interesting. For the most part, they were the same old tired metaphors. What made those singers great is that Cooke and Gaye knew how to express the emotions in those songs with tremendous ingenuity, bringing unique and subtle interpretations to each word they sang. When listening to John Legend, it’s easy to imagine another artist singing his songs, and doing them better, too.

The album is a disappointment only if you expect something new from Legend, instead of the same harmless R & B that he has made in the past. Too often it feels like the songs are all pretty much the same, which isn’t necessarily a detraction. What Legend does with his arrangement is still so good that it’s only possible to get tired of his formula, rather than dismissing it completely. This is the kind of album that should appeal to almost anybody who enjoys a harmless melody once in a while. If you expect something more, a breakthrough of sorts, then you’ll be disappointed. Legend has found his sound and he’s sticking to it.