He wanted to change up the groove - a little. Known for his lounge-friendly balladry and midtempo, piano-driven hits, R&B star John Legend effects some swagger on the dance floor with his new album, Evolver.
"I never felt like I was married to one sound," says the multi-Grammy winner, who headlines the Lyric Opera House on Monday. "I felt like trying something new. I thought I could do it my way. It was worth experimenting."
His previous platinum sellers, 2004's Get Lifted and 2006's Once Again, were studded with songs of lust, longing and romantic devotion that swayed and rippled with vintage Motown and '70s soul influences. But on Evolver, Legend's musical direction seems to take cues from '80s soft rock and R&B.
The fluid, organic instrumentation of his previous efforts has been supplanted by flashy synthesizers and stuttering, bubbling beat machines. The songs are also more hook-driven. Unlike his other albums, Evolver features a few guest appearances: Andre 3000, Kanye West, Estelle and Brandy all stop by to rap or croon.
"The last albums were very successful, and each brought a new flavor," says Legend, who last week was at a tour stop in Detroit. "For this record, it was no dramatic change for me. I felt like the same artist."
The Ohio-born singer-songwriter-pianist is unchanged in some ways. The aching phrasing heard on such hits as "Ordinary People" and "Used to Love U" remains the same on the 13 cuts on Evolver. Legend still sings about doomed love, honeyed love and seemingly uncontrollable cheating with a certain earnestness or a winking sense of humor when appropriate. But his well-meaning, sometimes-witty lyrics are recast in sleek arrangements that glint with elements of reggae, Loose Ends-style R&B and Brit pop circa 1983. There's also an overblown ballad tossed in that wouldn't sound out of place on a Barry Manilow or Neil Diamond album.
Although the attempt is admirable, Evolver ends up being Legend's most erratic album. Musically, it zips from one style to another, but the songs aren't compelling or sturdy enough to pull off such a kaleidoscopic approach. Style often trumps substance.
After the almost-instant platinum-plus sales of Get Lifted, which garnered three Grammy Awards, and Once Again, Legend felt brave enough to refresh his sound.
"It certainly helped," he says. "You have a certain amount of confidence and latitude with the record company after the success of the first two. They're more confident that you can do your own thing."
A few standouts manage to glimmer among Evolver's dull spots. "Green Light," the giddy first single, is the most memorable. But Legend is gloriously upstaged by Andre 3000, whose charismatic, off-the-cuff rapping shoves the singer into the background. "Quickly," featuring the yearning, textured vocals of '90s pop sensation Brandy, is a nice match for Legend.
"I think she's one of the best singers alive," the artist says of his duet partner. "It was a matter of picking the right artist for the right song. But the songs were done before we called the artists. They just added something extra."
As on all of his albums, the artist includes a topical message song. "If You're Out There," which closes Evolver, was performed by Legend at the Democratic National Convention in August.
"The song is a rallying cry," Legend says. "When I was writing it, I knew I didn't want to temper it with cynicism. I wanted to be unabashedly hopeful: 'Let's go all the way.' "
He applies the same attitude to his music.
"I don't like to predict what the next album will be," Legend says. "I don't know, but it will be an adventure."
IF YOU GO
See John Legend and Raphael Saadiq at the Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave., at 8 p.m. Monday. Tickets are $73 and available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-7328 or going to ticketmaster.com.