Album review: Alicia Keys


WHEN Alicia Keys is good, she's very good. When she's bad, she's just your common or garden diva, coasting along without deploying her talent. Some of her songs are so very forgettable that you wonder how she could ever have been dubbed "a young Aretha" or "the new Roberta Flack" when she emerged at the start of the Noughties.

Then, with a deft refrain on the piano and some smokily soulful outpouring of heartache, you understand what caused Bob Dylan to say "there's nothing about that girl I don't like" and immortalise her in the lyric of Modern Times (Keys, for her part, was "honoured to be on his mind").

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Her recent musical endeavours continue to walk the quality-control tightrope. For some reason, the Keys-Jack White musical dream team failed to come up with a better Bond theme than the clunky Another Way To Die. But this year, she gave Whitney Houston her classy comeback song, Million Dollar Bill. Now her fourth album has flashes of both the good and the bland.

The Element Of Freedom starts with a brief, silky spoken-word intro on the titular theme, which wouldn't sound out of place in the hippie musical Hair.

Although her lyrics tend to say it straight, Keys often falls into LA-therapy speak in interviews. For this album, she apparently "eliminated all of the boundaries and all the limitations, so that you can feel your freedom and express your freedom in every way you possibly can". Which is just a verbose way of telling us nothing.

However, freedom is the last thing she is celebrating on Love Is Blind, on which she castigates herself in a tough, soulful voice that it's "too late" to do anything about falling in love with a wrong 'un – in her case, married rapper/producer Swizz Beatz.

She doesn't get any relief on the lighter, lyrical soul pop single Doesn't Mean Anything which revisits the romantic regret of If I Ain't Got You to diminishing returns. It's not the most scintillating taster for the album; she establishes her point quickly, then spins it out for four and a half minutes.

Much of The Element Of Freedom is taken up with the pros and cons of romantic love. In some respects, Keys is a jobbing songwriter, sticking to the safe subjects and composing to a formula. With its "inspirational" lyrics and gospel-choir backing, How It Feels To Fly must be in contention as a future X Factor winner's single, while the Saturdays probably can't wait to get their mitts on the girly pop ballad Distance and Time, which measures devotion in typically hyperbolic dimensions.

She also trots out the "if I can make it there" truisms associated with her native New York on Empire State of Mind, expanding her soaring/strained (take your pick) chorus for the Jay-Z single into a full song.

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For such an otherwise accomplished performer, Keys is often guilty of singing through her nose, as on the otherwise decent Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart, but she also has a fabulous husky tone, which she uses to wring as much emotional anguish as she can out of the unremarkable reggae-lite number Love Is My Disease.

She puts her breathy falsetto – and her new collection of Moog synthesisers and her love of Prince – to good use on the charming electro soul track This Bed. The vintage keyboards also come out for Wait Til You See My Smile, which sounds like it's about to break into Supertramp's Dreamer or build up to some U2/Coldplay-style stadium-friendly crescendo of euphoria. The crescendo never comes, but it is still a robust example of Keys' musical diversity – she's not one for staying in the soul/R&B box.

That's How Strong My Love Is is a pretty, but also pretty clichd, piano pop ballad, in which she counts the ways. It's the kind of thing Beyonc or Mariah turn out when they want to look cute. And here's Ms Knowles herself, putting her stamp on the album's stand-out track.

Put It In a Love Song is infectious, booty-shaking fun, mainly bashed out on a tom, plus a minimal piano arrangement. Musically, it is hatched from the same batch as Single Ladies, without being as much of a blaring din. This time round, the girls make no hectoring demands for a ring on their finger; instead, they entreat their man to demonstrate his ardour in words – maybe a text, but preferably song lyrics. Just like Bob Dylan, Keys doesn't add.

There's always one of these fiendishly catchy creatures on an Alicia Keys album to tide you through the more banal variations on the theme. But it seems to have more to do with hitting on a strong pop hookline than feeling your freedom.


Sons & Daughters,

Mono, Glasgow, Hogmanay

For those who prefer their Hogmanay shindigs with a roof overhead, this is arguably the pick of the bunch, as Sons & Daughters bring some retro glamour, blunt garage rockabilly and frenzied pop to this Merchant City hostelry, supported by Sparkling Shadazz and members of Errors on DJing duties.

• Tel: 0141-553 2400

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