R&B/soul singer/songwriter John Legend’s sixth album, Darkness and Light, is well named.
Legend’s love anthems are muted and his vocals and arrangements are pushed in edgy directions with the help of collaborator/producer Blake Mills (Alabama Shakes).
Darkness and Light is heavy on under-the-surface turbulence. Legend’s keyboard-based songs have leaned towards condo jazz at times but here that approach is flipped over and buried under other sounds (synthesizer, guitars and a healthy leaping of distortion). These seemingly disparate vibes make the album a sleeper, one that can be returned to as new sounds are discovered.
Legend’s vocal performance thrives in conditions like these where creativity and gut-level performances are as important to the song as the writing and production.
His work with Mills brings out darker elements in the music that resemble Legend’s hero Marvin Gaye, who tapped into unease later in his career.
Many albums have their particular starting points that aren’t necessarily the first song. On Darkness and Light it’s the track What You Do to Me, a foreboding tale of regret that’s set to a dark hip hop groove. The track belies the frustration of Legend’s vocal, and his expressions of lament, joy and trepidation make the album a contemplative drive through some juicy techno-friendly soul music.
Legend’s tamped down experimentalism gives his music a deep resonance that’s far removed contemporary R&B.
– Dean Gordon-Smith is a Vernon-based musician who reviews the latest releases for The Morning Star every Friday.