It’s hard to believe that an album covering 35-year-old soul songs could generate so much hype, but with John Legend and the Roots, it’s hard not to take notice. The songs discuss war (frequently making a connection between Vietnam and Iraq), poverty, violence, and social justice. But the sound has been revisited using modern production techniques.
The songs vary in quality. “Wake Up Everybody” is an energetic duet between John Legend and Melanie Fiona. “Compared To What” is funky, but it lacks the frustration of the original. “I Can’t Write Left Handed” is a tragic song, but is sung with too much self-indulgence.
The fundamental problem with this album—and all cover albums in general— is that you inevitably have to compare the new version with the original. This sets a high standard for John Legend & The Roots, which is a shame when you consider that they probably didn’t intend to one-up the original performers, but to interpret the music in their own style. Loyal Motown enthusiasts may not warm up to the idea of a Marvin Gaye song being remade and re-mastered, regardless of the talent involved, but for the rest of us, more John Legend is a good thing. And teaming up with the Roots makes Legend even better. Together they have an album that is well produced and a good lesson in civics.