Earlier this year, Lionel Richie tried to stage a comeback. That effort was mostly unsuccessful — perhaps because John Legend has already cornered the market on his brand of half-soulful, half-schticky R&B. Legend’s most recent album, “Once Again” (Good Music/Sony Urban), a follow-up to the Grammy-winning “Get Lifted,” is packed with ’80s-sounding keyboards and his strong, willful voice; Legend’s live show plays up its loungier, nearly Caribbean arrangements and Legend’s Vegas-y showmanship.
Unfortunately, a poor mix — with Legend’s vocals piercingly loud and the drums buried behind layers of synths and background vocals — took all subtlety out of Legend’s otherwise moving run-through of his smash ballad “Ordinary People” and the noodly guitar of “Heaven Only Knows,” turning them into hit-you-over-the-head displays of histrionics. It was a shame, because Legend’s got range; even when he’s expressing gooey-eyed sentiments of love, it’s with an obvious passion for the material that lifts him well beyond other, lesser R&B hitmakers like Usher.
The bouncy “Stereo,” the get-loose-in-public “PDA (We Just Don’t Care)” and the Hendrix-ish off-kilter “Show Me,” all from the new album, had Legend leading the band like an able-bodied frontman; his cover of “Cruisin'” played up his cornier tendencies.
Both sides of Legend are eminently likable: Like Richie, he tries to have it both ways, playing up his sexy-man demeanor and wink-wink-nudge-nudge affability. It’s finding the right balance — both between those qualities and in the mix — that could take this soul singer from respectable throwback to true Legend.