Remember Stevie Wonder’s all-classics run of records in the 1970s? Well, no one can ever equal that hot streak. But the Stevie Wonder of the ’80s, the one low on inspiration but adept at concocting lavishly sentimental dollops of balladry, has an able replacement in John Legend. His triple-Grammy-winning 2004 debut, Get Lifted, was so accomplished, it elicited fears he’d used up a lifetime’s worth of world-class tunes. Once Again is a scintillating repudiation of such qualms.
From the sinuous come-on of the ”Stormy”-sampling ”Save Room” to the balmy bossa nova of ”Maxine,” Kanye West’s piano-pounding protégé conducts a songcraft master class. But he also fills the disc with personal baggage. Get Lifted‘s greatest hit, ”Ordinary People,” was a somnolent mope about a combative relationship in which Legend saw himself as the injured party. Similar themes reoccur in Once Again. The West-produced ”Heaven” has Legend moaning, ”Here we go, same old thing, when things go wrong, you always seem to blame me.” He’s also the victim in ”Again” and in its torrid sequel, ”Another Again” (fingers crossed there’ll be ”Another Again Again,” where he’s trapped in the closet with a cigar-smoking dwarf!). Musically, the CD is satisfying enough to ensure further Grammy acclaim. Lyrically, it’s damaged enough to require a top-flight couples therapist.