It’s hard to ignore John Legend. One of a select few in show business to claim the title of EGOT, his family-friendly style has yielded him fame and fortune. On his new album, Bigger Love, Legend pulls out a number of producing resources in order to maintain that awareness.
To an extent, he succeeds. Bigger Love sounds exactly like the spectacle Legend wants it to be. The drums in “Wild” are epic and booming, underlying exultant, uplifting vocals, sometimes reminiscent of the overbearing work of Imagine Dragons. The atmospheric snaps on “U Move, I Move” tunnel into the brain like the most insidious kind of earworm. The album is chock full of variety but doesn’t deviate too far out of Legend’s comfort zone, always keeping up with him with a wide instrumentation range.
And that’s where Legend falters. Bigger Love is hyperproduced, every second of it oozing with saturation. Piano, guitar, strings, drums, vocals, horns and every instrument under the sun cram the dynamic range of Legend’s songs. Even on pulled-back songs such as “Slow Cooker,” the music is full, ready to burst at the seams.
Bigger Love is entrenched in influence and personality, supported by teams of producers and featured artists that Legend can count on to best adapt whatever style he aims for. Some of these influences are simply a matter of genre: trap, blues, soul, R&B, Legend’s classic piano balladry and dozens of other genres blend together to support the singer.
Other influences are less general. “Actions” is hard to listen to, in large part due to very obviously sharing a guitar sample from David McCallum’s “The Edge” along with Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s “The Next Episode.” This is the kind of thing an artist like Legend would be expected to avoid, but he takes any comparisons in stride and simply moves on to singing.
Legend’s singing obviously draws a lot of attention to the words he’s saying, but the lyrics on Bigger Love are nothing to write home about. For the most part, it is empty romance — sweet words of love that, in the end, mean very little. Everything Legend says on this album has been said elsewhere, thousands of times. His corny description of his lover’s lips as his “Favorite Place” is laughable, and he only occasionally works with broader ideas and themes, such as on “Conversations in the Dark.”
The lyrics are full of sappy, romantic strife, but it’s unclear who Legend is singing about. His marriage to Chrissy Teigen is a widely publicized fairy tale most notable for the couple’s appearance in Legend’s “All of Me” music video. Yet Legend’s lyrics all seem to communicate the struggles of an overly romantic 20-something. This crippling dissonance between lyrics and reality strips the album of sincerity and character. It feels less like a series of love letters and more like a series of attempts at the Billboard Hot 100.
To Legend’s credit, these attempts aren’t really in vain. “I Do,” like so many songs on the album, is simple and energetic. It is dancing music, not meant for cognition, but for locomotion. The music on Bigger Love begs to be moved to, from the lively strings of “One Life” to the slow, sliding doo-wop of “Ooh Laa.”
Even the slower instruments on the album are full of vibrancy and life, like the swaying guitar of “Focused.” It’s smooth and steady, but Legend’s voice is variable. As on the rest of the album, he’s either strong and confident in the range he’s in, or squeaking and groaning outside of his comfort zone.
But for the most part, Legend knows where he shines and where he doesn’t. He knows his strengths and weaknesses and takes care to stick to his strengths as much as possible, while still seeking out experimentation where he can. Bigger Love is formulaic. There is little to expect from it, but, in return, the album expects little of the listener. It is not a terrific album, but it is a friendly listen, and there is something to be said for that.