Sunday, January 14, 2007

CD Review: Once Again by John Legend

Despite its title, John Legend's new album Once Again is not a retread of the concepts found on his critically acclaimed 2004 debut Get Lifted. In fact, the sound is quite different. While the production on Once Again is modern, the sound is very retro. It's the closest we'll ever get to hearing what soul artists in the 1960's and 1970's would've made if they had 2000's era technology.

When the album starts with the song “Save Room,” you feel as though you've entered a time machine. The bass and electric organ hit you and you're transported back to the 1960's. The lyrics are sexy but not explicit: “This might just hurt a little / Love hurts sometimes when you do it right / Don't be afraid of a little bit of pain / Pleasure is on the other side...” There is even a breakdown that sounds straight out pop songs of the 1960's as well.

On “P.D.A. (We Just Don't Care),” we are taken to the 1970's. This funky love song is all about the joys of expressing affection in public. The song has a light, fun sound to it that makes lyrics about making love in places like a restaurant, a job, and “your mama's house” seem sweet-natured rather than dirty and kinky.

Hendrix is referenced on the Raphael Saadiq-produced “Show Me.” Featuring a slow, guitar-driven beat, this song has Legend singing in a higher pitch than usual and revealing a previously unheard side of himself. The influences of Hendrix and Otis Redding can be heard on “Slow Dance” with its bluesy guitar and chorus.

Not every song on Once Again tries to sound retro. “Again” will remind some of the song “Ordinary People” from John Legend's debut. Although there is more instrumentation on “Again” than “Ordinary People,” the piano is at the forefront on this song. Also, the subject matter, which deals with how Legend keeps returning to a relationship even though it doesn't work, is close to “Ordinary People.” Despite the similarities, it stands out from his hit song and is almost as good.

“Coming Home” also eschews the retro format and is one of the album's best songs. The song is sung from the point of view of a soldier away at war. It isn't political or overly dramatic and its low-key approach works in its favor. When Legends sings lyrics such as “I go to sleep and feel your spirit next to me / I'll make it home again / I pray you'll fall in love again...” you can't help but feel the emotion behind the words. This song is unlike any of John Legend's other work and it's hopefully a preview of what he does next.

Even though high-profile producers such as Kanye West, Raphael Saadiq, and Will.I.Am worked on Once Again, it doesn't feel like most modern R & B albums. It's a welcome throwback to the earlier days of soul music. A project such as this could have easily sounded like a cheap imitation of old-school music or a “neo-soul” album gone bad. What keeps Once Again from going that route is John Legend staying true to himself. While you can hear the influences of other artists in his songs, he never tries to actively imitate anyone in the sound of the music or in his singing. Even when samples are used on some songs, things are augmented enough that the song doesn't feel like a ripoff of someone else's work.

Once Again may not be as fresh to the ear as Legend's debut Get Lifted was but it's a solid album from start to finish with not a bad song to be found. It's one of the best albums released in 2006 and is worth picking up.

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