Review: John Legend's Album, "Darkness And Light"

Updated on December 12, 2016
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Reviews are a pain-free way of combining writing, with what I love (music for eg.), in a way that generates interest.

The Meaningful, Modern "Darkness and Light"

John Legend’s model wife, Chrissy Teigen and newborn daughter, Luna are the outright inspirations for his fifth studio release ‘Darkness And Light’. The 37-year-old soul star spends most of the record commenting on the day-to-day realities of love. Couples around the world will be able to relate to its kindred undercurrents.

Legend’s demonstrations of affection aren’t vomit-inducing. The soul star reflects on intimacy in a way that’s meaningful, but modern. ’Darkness And Light’ is very much set in the 21st century. Even when he’s crooning about falling for a complete stranger on ‘Temporarily Painless’, listeners will be able to sense the singer’s deep pride in his family. Though this impedes Legend’s ability to convincingly convey that particular track’s guy-on-the-prowl energy, Legend always comes across as if he’s singing via his own experiences.

Unlike some of his peers, Legend doesn't seem distracted by a picture perfect idea of what companionship should be like. This pays off on sultry, slow-burning R&B number ‘Surefire’, which features the musician fighting for his relationship.

Re-jigging Legend's Special Brand of Soul

On ’Right By You (For Luna)’, the singer sounds like he’s performing directly to listeners from his own front room. Legend has this effect across ‘Darkness And Light’, and it enhances the whole record. Having said all that, the project isn’t cosy.

Many of its songs try to repackage or re-jig Legend’s particular brand of soul. This is not a negative, modern soul albums can all too easily get unchallenging - ‘Darkness And Light’ fights diligently against this. However, because Legend generally performs the same tricks over the album’s various music backdrops, its revamps are only ever partial at best.

Additionally, ‘Darkness And Light’ is audibly rich, and the album showcases a diverse mix of easy-to-miss production highlights. So it’s a real surprise when certain tunes fall out of memory as soon as they’ve finished. ‘How Can I Blame You’ is one of a few tracks that’s able to buck that trend though.

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Brittany Howard Commands Attention on the LP's Title Track

Placed after slinky single ‘Penthouse Floor’ (which boasts a charismatic, casual appearance from Chance The Rapper), the album’s rugged title track stands out. This is mostly due to the presence of Alabama Shakes frontwoman and musician Brittany Howard. Howard commands attention on the cut, and enlivens the whole tracklisting with her performance. Legend is pretty much forced to match her all-out delivery.

Previous Lady Gaga, Madonna and Bieber collaborator, Kansas record producer BloodPop is involved with ‘What You Do To Me’. The song has his touch all over it. The track kicks off with ghostly brass tones before morphing into a paced, dangerous electro-lite R&B number. ‘What You Do To Me’ isn’t overdone, however it does pack a lot into its three minutes. The tune contains swears, and a serving of steamy backing vocals. Legend also briefly tests the limits of his falsetto. Long-time Legend fans may be caught off-guard by ‘What You Do To Me’ - but the song was probably designed to have that effect.

R&B Singer Miguel and Legend Join Forces for "Overload"

Legend sings about wanting to keep his romance safe from distractions on ‘Overload’, which features R&B vocalist/producer Miguel. The track impacts very differently to ‘What You Do To Me’. While the boys croon, “must we make a spectacle of love?”, the song’s lyrics continue express a need to scale a relationship back to its foundations. Centred around the twosome’s smokey vocals, ‘Overload’ pushes its personal aura to the forefront and glows with warm, memorable jazz elements.

Dedicated to his baby girl, Legend uses ‘Right By You (For Luna)’ to ponder his daughter’s future, the way she’ll live her life, and the trials she willl inevitably encounter as she grows up. Backed by organic, unpretentious, jazzy accompaniment, the singer sweetly ensures listeners that he will be there for his little one, no matter what life throws at her.

Top: Chrissy Teigen, Bottom: Luna
Top: Chrissy Teigen, Bottom: Luna | Source

Things Get Personal on "Same Old Story"

Over an undemanding, soul backdrop, Legend describes the intense effect a woman is having on him on highlight ‘How Can I Blame You’. Reinforced by a non-invasive emotional pull, the track’s lifted hook excels with open, arresting melodic arcs.

Listeners may feel like they’re intruding on a private conversation between Legend and his partner on ‘Same Old Story’. Upon the track’s lush, delicate instrumental, Legend sings about processing lingering feelings of mistrust. After its midway point, Legend’s vocals are momentarily ran through a processor. Without completely demolishing the song's personal lean, this creative detour intriguingly corrupts 'Same Old Story' with an experimental edge.

For some reason, despite the tune’s weighty subject matter, the bulky R&B beats of ‘Marching Into The Dark’ can feel sexy. Although nothing about the cut endures for too long, ‘Marching Into The Dark’ is attractively presented and feels intricate. Legend’s vocals become more commanding towards the track’s climax.

"Love You Anyway" and "Drawing Lines" Dare to Be Different

Legend stresses his fidelity again on deluxe edition bonus ‘Love You Anyway’. The tune’s sparse, raw soul instrumental is laced with countless, random musical details. Gritty guitar licks and strained, emphasised string tones are littered across it. ‘Love You Anyway’ can feel scattered, still, its many embellishments make the otherwise unchallenging track sound a little daring.

A range of unusual vocal tricks hog the limelight of stripped-back bonus cut ‘Drawing Lines’. Its minimal, stylish instrumental is dotted with intricate harmonies, as well as dramatic, choral gospel touches. At times, ‘Drawing Lines’ can sound too decorated to be really appreciated. Still, the song earns points for humbly challenging expectations of what Legend can offer as a musician.

Verdict: ****** 6/10

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