Thursday, March 01, 2007

"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:


Anonymous said...

Nice post Holly. Yes, the John Legend tune and last record "Once Again" are wonderful. I first heard the tune "Ordinary People" from his first record a few years back. That tune is great too, with just John playing piano along with his incredibly expressive voice. And man, there's definitely a sexiness to all of it. Just listen to "Save Room" or "Slow Dance" from his last record. Wow. I'm hooked.

BTW, I really enjoyed the grammies. I think there's a lot to like going on in pop music - or at least more than I'd imagined. Even that J. Timberlake tune (What Goes Around) is pretty darn powerful.

Keep up the great posts.


Holly A Hughes said...

Actually, I've taken some flak from fellow music fans for writing (elsewhere) how impressed I was with Justin Timberlake's performance. He has made some very smart choices on how to use his talent, and I applaud him.

But in general there seemed no range to the music choices that night -- current versions of pop, R&B, hip-hop all sound exactly the same, and yet under the category of "rock" we're supposed to subsume roots rock and punk and alt rock and emo and indie rock. Since that happens to be where my tastes lie, I felt squeezed out. Yes, it was nbice to see John Mayer, but he by no means represents all of "rock." And country music seemed non-existent (which is probably why country artists went off and formed their own awards gala, leaving the field clear for the pariah Dixie Chicks to clean up at the Grammies).

It may just be a labelling issue. The problem with awards shows is magnified when the labels have been skewed to favor certain types of artists. But we all know that the recording industry is wandering in dark confusion these days, and perhaps the Grammy Awards are just a symptom of a bigger problem.

Anonymous said...

Great points Holly. I really don't guage anything Grammy as the best and most well rounded music out there. A lot of current pop music does tend to sound the same. And I too love roots rock and americana music and you'll never see any coverage of that at a grammy show. Even legends like Ray Davies get snubbed after making career records. So really, I don't put much creedence into what the grammies say. That said, I did find myself enjoying releases last year by big names like Legend, Christina Aguilera, Timberlake and Gnarls Barkley. Those artists also put on great live performances at the Grammies also. Most likely it makes me feel "young", being impressed by the newer artists? I was reading in the NYTimes recently an article about the resurgance of old school soul music. Candi Staton, Irma Thomas, Solomon Burke to name a few released great soul releases last year. I'm hearing it in new artists like John Legend, some hip-hop and wait til you hear the new record by Amy Winehouse!
All in all, that bodes well for "soul" music at least and I'm sure Nick Lowe will add another triumph to that list later this year?

I can't believe I watched the whole grammies show and seemed entertained most of the time. Except for the Carrie Underwood and Rascal (what the) Flatts tribute to the Eagles. Ugh!!

At least the grammies were more entertaining than the Oscars. What a schmoozefest!

Keep on,

Holly A Hughes said...

Don't go there. I LOVE the Oscars. I know I should know better but I'm a helpless sucker for the entire gruesome spectacle.

And yes, I am sure Nick Lowe will add another triumph to that list later this year. Though, to quote Ray Davies (since you mentioned him), "I'm so tired, tired of waiting, tired of waiting for yo-oo-ou..."