The smallest sounding song on John Legend’s ‘Darkness and Light’ has the biggest impact. The sparse ‘I Know Better’ features some of the singer’s most exposed lyrics and rawest vocals, as he delivers lines like “Legend is just a name / I know better than to be so proud / I won’t drink in all this fame / Or take more love than I’m allowed” over piano and organ accompaniment with stirring sincerity and restraint. It’s a moving but subdued tune that is confidently placed at the top of the track list.
Immediately after the final piano chord fades, though, the throaty guitar figure and funky drums that herald ‘Penthouse Floor’ signal an eclectic album ahead. Legend’s lyrical focus also undergoes a shift outward as he critiques the insularity and frailty of an abstract elite. “They float above the city lights / Forget the truth, inhale the lies / Just enjoy the show,” he sings coldly. That lyrical sharpness and a great verse from Chance the Rapper make the song a standout and, considered alongside ‘I Know Better,’ set a high bar for the album that follows.
Frustratingly, it’s a bar that the uneven ‘Darkness and Light’ doesn’t often reach, although the momentum of the opening salvo is maintained through the next couple of songs. The stunning title track, featuring Alabama Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard, features a loosely funky verse in which Legend’s falsetto blends seamlessly with hers, but both pull the stops on a gigantic chorus where Howard’s incomparably powerful wails give chills. ‘Overload,’ a soulful rumination on a love performed under the spotlight, features Miguel and gets an added dose of lyrical depth from the reality of Legend’s high-profile marriage to model Chrissy Teigen.
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Things stall, though, with lead single ‘Love Me Now,’ a saccharine love song that starkly contrasts with the lyrical sophistication that precedes it. Unfortunately, it represents a turning point; there are certainly great songs that follow, but on the whole the remainder plays it noticeably safer. ‘What You Do To Me’ and ‘How Can I Blame You’ are emotively delivered but conceptually generic. The latter teases the edgier leanings of ‘Penthouse Floor’ when Legend sings about getting pulled over for speeding, a scenario that bears obvious connotations with recent headlines, but an opportunity for the singer to comment on police violence instead becomes a lesson in gratitude for what he has.
‘Temporarily Painless,’ about a booze-induced one night stand, similarly hints at a more subversive streak, but perennial nice guy Legend doesn’t really sell the song’s bawdy conceit and its impact is, as the title suggests, temporary.
Through it all, though, ‘Darkness and Light’ sounds terrific. The production, courtesy of Blake Mills, is rich, tasteful, and rewarding to repeat listeners, while the sprawling list of contributors is consistently stellar. Whether it’s Pino Palladino’s warm, melodic bass, Kamasi Washington’s evocative saxophone, Rob Moose’s exquisite strings or the innumerable flourishes that exist between them, each sound is immaculately captured and the depth and uniqueness of the tapestry they create is a consistent joy.
The brilliance of much of the album’s first half is recaptured on closer ‘Marching Into the Dark,’ in which Legend grapples with existential dread, wondering, “What if your life was just to live day by day / And after you’re gone the world stays the same? / Why should you love what you’re gonna lose anyway?” It’s among the songs on ‘Darkness and Light’ that hint at a major artistic growth for the singer. Although not fully articulated here, it’s a sign of great things to come.