Around track six, I started getting bored with John Legend’s sophomore album “Once Again.” That’s when I realized that “Once Again” was not made for me, but instead for people who were actually in love.
John Legend didn’t write the lyrics, “I just can’t leave her, no, / I’ll write a song,” for a dirty-minded freshman like me. He didn’t sing “I don’t care who sees / us hugging or kissing” for anyone who isn’t currently falling in or out of love. This album was made for lovers and should be bought by lovers and no one else.
It’s really hard to interpret “Once Again” in any other way, as every single song is a love song of some sort. Some are better than others, worth listening to no matter what your emotional state: “Stereo” is a standout for its dark melodies and hard-hitting snares and “P.D.A. (We Just Don’t Care),” probably the album’s strongest cut, combines a mellow dance beat with an old-school Stevie Wonder vibe. A few songs even reward multiple listenings, like the Kanye West-produced “Heaven.” The song combines Kanye’s signature sampling of vintage R&B with Legend’s heartfelt but subdued lyricism, resulting in a catchy groove that will stay with you after the tune’s finish.
None of these songs turn the R&B/neosoul/hip-hop genre on its head, and none of them will change the way you think about life. But that’s okay, because Legend isn’t trying to do any of that. He’s just trying to sing some beautiful love songs, and he manages that with an earnest voice and smooth but understated production.
That being said, it’s disappointing that Legend didn’t expand his range of subjects. For someone who borrows so much from Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder — both of whom were known for tackling complex issues in their music — Legend clearly avoids making any kind of political or moral statement. He even addresses this in the song “slow dance,” when he sings, “Turn off that TV a minute / That politics and talking / Ain’t really none of my business.” The one song that breaks this trend is the CD’s ending track, “Coming Home.” In it, Legend references the war in Iraq, saying, “We fight to stay alive / But somebody’s got to die / It’s so strange to me / a new year, a new enemy.” The song draws upon Legend’s gospel roots and is genuinely moving, leaving listeners to wonder what Legend could have achieved if he had risked ranging out into new topics.
It’s also a letdown that Legend didn’t try to break new musical ground with “Once Again.” Throughout the album he pays homage to past musical traditions like soul and Motown, but he never expands on them to create something new. Instead, he stays within the established bounds of those genres, and considering that he’s collaborated so much with real innovators like Kanye West and Lauryn Hill, this lack of originality is especially off-putting.
But these are thoughts that only the loveless can have. For people in the midst of passion or heartache, these songs are true and meaningful. The rest of us can ponder the lyrics of Bright Eyes.