In the Shadow of the Past: John Legend, Once Again

The themes of John Stephens’s songs are variations on romance, and the songs resist cliché to the extent that they are imaginative or realistic, as the need (or case) may be. The collection’s first song—in which the singer asks someone to “save room for my love”—has a 1960s’ Burt Bacharach bossa nova feel, followed by a song (“Heaven”) built around a sample of someone else’s work (“Heaven Only Knows”).

By Daniel Garrett

John Legend
Once Again
Sony, 2006

I heard the first collection of songs produced by John Stephens recording as John Legend, Get Lifted, and with one or two exceptions, I was not particularly impressed, though I know Get Liftedestablished him in the eyes (and ears) of many. I could not shake my perception that sometimes he was not a very good singer—that his voice sounded flat, rough, and insincere at times. Others found him transcendent, but as he himself did not seem special or transformed to me, I found him wanting, and I was not particularly entertained, nor was I moved. I listen to Once Again, and I can hear improvements, but much of them seem borrowed from better, and older, singers. The themes of John Stephens’s songs are variations on romance, and the songs resist cliché to the extent that they are imaginative or realistic, as the need (or case) may be. The collection’s first song—in which the singer asks someone to “save room for my love”—has a 1960s’ Burt Bacharach bossa nova feel, followed by a song (“Heaven”) built around a sample of someone else’s work (“Heaven Only Knows”). Such references to the past are enriching and also questionable: what is the nature of the man’s original talent? The song “Stereo” is about a woman attracted to the narrator for all the wrong reasons: can one say the same for the rest of his audience? In “Show Me,” John Stephens borrows Jeff Buckley’s high-voiced vulnerability and asks for demonstrations of love. I admire Jeff Buckley, I love Jeff Buckley, but sometimes borrowing a singer’s sound can be like borrowing his feeling: would you want to borrow someone else’s happiness or despair? Don’t you want your own? John Stephens’s “Each Day Gets Better” is pleasant and reminds me of a song I cannot quite name, while his “P.D.A.” evokes a vivid situation of exhibitionist sexuality (and seems something born of experience or fantasy, something possibly original); and although “Slow Dance” recalls in words and sound old music, it is very enjoyable. There remain rough aspects of John Stephens’s voice and sound, as well as aspects that seem unusually sophisticated and smooth. (When John Stephens invokes the appeal of old music, of favorite songs of years past, I do think of other, and better, singers: and one of them is Jeffrey Osborne, whose 2005 JayOz/Koch album From the Soul features attractive—manly, seductive, tender—renditions of songs such as “Close the Door,” “People Get Ready,” “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” and “Every Little Bit Hurts.”) John Stephens is a mix of old and new—and there’s enough energy, intelligence, commitment, and creation of provocative or believable situations to be interesting. He gives “Again” an intense reading; and “Maxine” is about possibly seeing a lover in a questionable situation (was it her or someone else?—but she is wearing the Peruvian shoes he bought for her), and the song describes an encounter with infidelity, and the song has the narration and scenery, if not the drama, of cinema. Anyone familiar with Sam Cooke will hear him in the song “Where Did My Baby Go,” a song I like—the piano music is good and the Cooke suavity is appealing but it is odd to have John Stephens (as John Legend) marry that to his own slurring diction and cracking voice. Should I hear John Stephens’s vocal tics as signs of authenticity, or lack of professionalism? (There is also on Once Again “Maxine’s Interlude” and “Another Again.”) “Coming Home” is a strong ballad about family and war. I am still not sure what to think of John Legend.

Daniel Garrett has written about music for AllAboutJazz.com, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Option, and PopMatters.com, including commentary on Sade, the Afghan Whigs, Tupac Shakur, Kitchens of Distinction, Matthew Sweet, and Annie Lennox; and his commentaries on Ben Harper, Beyonce, Bright Eyes, Devendra Banhart, John Mayer, Wynton Marsalis, Luther Vandross, Leela James, Lizz Wright, Sinead O’Connor and Al Green have appeared on the web pages of The Compulsive Reader. “It can be hard, sometimes, to welcome new artists as they emerge, and I think that John Legend will grow as an artist, and I look forward to that, but, now, there are others—such as Leela James and Lizz Wright—whom I enjoy more. There is less distance between their ambition and their accomplishment,” says Garrett. Daniel Garrett has written also about art, books, business, film, and politics, and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Offscreen, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.

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