John Legend’s Sunday afternoon-friendly R&B shtick has always been a tough sell on me, perhaps because his creeping messianic flourishes have consistently lacked the compellingly obsessive pathology of that famed late-registrant college dropout. But Evolver, or In Which John Legend Momentarily Snatches Those White Venetian Blind Specs from Kanye West’s Face, comes pretty close to changing the game. If it’s less consistent than the homogenized, tasteful Get Lifted, and doesn’t ever strike out in as surprising directions as Once Again (mainly “P.D.A.,” which, like Mary J. Blige’s “All That I Can Say,” performed the impossible feat of making an otherwise sobering personality sound realistically content), Evolver might be the least affected of Legend’s LPs thus far.
For a change, Legend doesn’t constantly sound as though he’s trying to impress the VH1 cognoscenti with his impeccable musicality. Sure, that’s to say it’s occasionally dumb, but oh so approachable. Nowhere is his willingness to subvert his self-aggrandizing musicianship more apparent than in the album’s welcomingly fresh opening double-shot of pinkish, electro energy. “Greenlight” (a collaboration with André 3000) and “It’s Over” (a duet with Kanye) jog and strut, respectively, on neon pulses, with nary an acoustic piano lick to be found. Andre’s near-apathetic wordplay on the former is hardly the way to fulfill the legacy of “Bombs Over Baghdad,” nor is Kanye’s “kiddies”/“titties” rhyming scheme on the latter going to get him into graduate school, but as guest spots on a John Legend album, they are the sonic equivalent of unclenching buttocks. (So what if shit comes out?)
For a few songs, it almost feels like Legend is truly prepping himself to fill the title role, but it doesn’t take long for the initial gush to congeal into limpidness. The drippy “I Love, You Love” and the crystalline ballroom epic “This Time” find Legend adrift in so much mezzo-piano murmur, and “If You’re Out There,” his Vangelis-tinged gift to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, kinda made me nostalgic for the Beastie Boys’s overrated contribution to 2004 political discourse. (“The future started yesterday” doesn’t exactly convince when the musical accompaniment harkens to Michael “Man in the Mirror” Jackson.) Legend himself has said in interviews that Evolver doesn’t really represent his self-image as a musician, and that it hasn’t any theme other than to exist as a collection of songs, which, in the iTunes era, is every bit as old-fashioned as any of his piano balladry.