"Again" / John Legend
A couple weeks ago on the Grammy awards show, I was mesmerized by this guy, the coolest neo-soul cat around. (Not to mention having one of the most perfect star names ever.) He didn't appear in the same segment with Smokey Robinson and Lionel Richie, but he might as well have -- in his smart tuxedo, seated at a black grand piano, he seemed the epitome of elegance and melodic gift, an urbane reincarnation of what Smokey and Lionel represented in their heyday. I knew I had to hear more.
This track -- from Legend's second album, Once Again, released in 2006 -- shows that the guy has already figured out that less is more: it's basically just John's jazz piano and his coaxing reedy tenor (you can barely detect a few sustained notes on an electric guitar, an organ moan or two), which throws the focus onto the lyrics. But they're not tidy pop lyrics; he's got a sort of free-floating blank verse thing going on, a welcome contrast to the insistent forced rhyme and meter of rap. Oh, there are rhymes all right -- generally linking significant pairs of words, like "ecstasy / forbidden tree," "motel / familiar smell" --but the verses stretch and contract to accommodate extra words and lines as necessary. It's almost as if the singer is talking to himself, muttering tensely under his breath, trying to figure out what in the hell is going on in this affair.
At first "doing it" stands for the usual (wink wink, nudge nudge) but as the story of this illicit passion develops, "doing it" also refers to the tormented soap opera of fighting, making up, breaking up, over and over, an endless cycle of "fleeting joy and fading ecstasy." "Accusations fly like bullets do," Legend sings wearily; he can see the all-too-predictable pattern by now -- "passion ends, then the pain begins." Yadda yadda yadda. "Damn I love you but this is crazy / I have to fight you almost daily," he groans in frustration. By the time he says, "you feel good as hell to me," it's definitely a double-edged remark.
The chorus is like jazz improv, repeating "I'm/we're doing it again" in all sorts of different permutations, rallying around that trumpeting high note on "again." Texture and emotion are more important here than packaged pop-song structure. Eventually, if you've been listening to it with all your senses, you find yourself tangled up and lost inside this song -- just like the singer is in his sordid passion. If Stevie Wonder's deliciously boppy "Part-Time Lover" is the Before, "Again" is the miserable After. I can't say I've ever been caught up in a tawdry affair like this, but I can sure feel his pain -- and feel the tug of lust that keeps him going back for more.
Watching that Grammy show, I felt a little depressed, I have to admit it -- as if hip-hop and rap have taken over pop music and coarsened everything. But if John Legend is the future of pop music, then I won't slit my wrists just yet.
Listen to it here: http://music.download.com/johnlegend/3600-8558_32-100622965.html