With 2016’s Darkness and Light, John Legend seemed ready to address the thorny side of love. Shifting from the syrupy, wedding-ready love songs that have defined his career, he tackled romance as a force to be negotiated with. Yet the results of that reckoning are missing from his seventh album, Bigger Love. If anything, Legend’s brush with bleakness has caused an overcompensation of amatory devotionals.
Most cloying is the choir-backed Conversations in the Dark, an uninspired clone of his megahit All of You. But even the elegantly minimalist R&B of U Move, I Move quickly loses its edge when paired with Legend’s saccharine crooning. The record’s narrow theme also leaves him blind to embarrassment. “Our love’s worth waiting for, just let it stew some more, bring out each flavour and spice,” he sings on Slow Cooker, forgetting that his marriage is not a sausage casserole; despite its soft cushioning of synths and yelping vocals, Favorite Place, a song about kissing his wife, finds eroticism just out of reach.
There is some respite from the schmaltz. I Do pulls off racy neo-soul far better than Justin Timberlake, and the chill dancehall of Don’t Walk Away, featuring Koffee, shows that Legend is still eligible for a seat at pop’s table. The ironic thing is that he knows that a 16-track album of love songs for his wife is too much. As he puts it on Actions: “She don’t want it. She don’t need it.” Who, then, is it all for?