Wednesday, December 7, 2016

album review: 'HERE' by alicia keys

I have to admit, when voters on Patreon asked for this record in particular, I was a little stunned that there was any interest.

And I think that's on me, really, mostly because I've never really been incredibly interesting in Alicia Keys. I tend to know her more for her singles than her albums - although her first two records Songs In A Minor and The Diary Of Alicia Keys really are quite strong - and from those singles, she never struck me as the sort of artist that would really captivate me. Don't get me wrong, she has an incredible voice and is a good melodic composer, but that's where a lot of my praise tends to end, mostly because her midperiod work showed exactly where things could slip off the rails. As I Am slid towards some frustrating writing tropes that alternated between clunky and juvenile, The Element Of Freedom really felt overproduced - even if I do have a soft spot for 'Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart' - and Girl On Fire, while having a few good moments did ultimately suffer from both problems albeit to a slightly lesser extent. And this is all ignoring the biggest issue, namely that for as good of a singer as she is, I've never been wowed by the songwriting, which never seems to take the chances that she could and can definitely slip towards cliche. And at this point in her career going into her sixth album fifteen years in, I had to hope there'd be a little more experimentation - was I right?

Well, yes and no. I will say that sonically this record is starting to take more chances and diversify - not quite as elegant and refined as some of the songs on Girl On Fire, but rougher, trying to cultivate a little more of an edge... and I just wish the songwriting and presentation overall was able to follow through. What HERE by Alicia Keys feels like is a step towards material with a little more weight and impact, which is a good thing, but it's tentative and measured, a shade too compromised and safe to really hit me more deeply. In other words, it's decent, but I don't think it's really going to stick with me that much going forward.

And I really do wish it was better, because as I hope I made clear, Alicia Keys is one of hell of a singer and performer. Her voice is somehow only getting more soulful with age as it picks up more of a bite and rasp, which enables her to step into more subtle and textured territory, and she's clearly got the stage presence and poise to stay a compelling presence across this record. And while it remains frustratingly rare that we get greater insight into Keys' own life and struggles, this record does try to tell more stories from different perspectives and that requires her to stretch her dramatic range, like on the album centerpiece and highlight 'Illusion of Bliss', where she sings from the raw perspective of an addict, or the desperation that fuels 'Pawn It All' where she looks to put aside everything to start over and leave that past behind, or on 'Where Do We Begin Now' where she sings from the perspective of a woman on the precipice of coming out of the closet. Hell, even though she's not really rapping on this record, the dramatic intensity to the faster flows on 'The Gospel' are pretty damn compelling, certainly more than A$AP Rocky's sleepy and frustrating verse on 'Blended Family', and on the hook of the closer 'Hly War' she does sound pretty damn visceral - her voice is easily the most compelling thing about this acoustic ballad.

But circling back to 'Illusion of Bliss', the more I dug through the lyrics the more I was reminded of that song 'The A-Team' by Ed Sheeran, a song that was also about addiction and even shares some of the same fallen angel metaphors. And really, both songs have a similar problem at their root, and that is a certain distance from the harsher reality of the subject matter, in Sheeran's case driven by tone and in Alicia Keys' case driven by a lack of specifics in her writing. And look, I've said it before with regards to Alicia Keys, her writing has always had a frustrating lack of detail, but it's not so much lacking here but misapplied. I get going for universality in 'Illusion of Bliss' where that addiction that satiates the addict beyond the flesh could be any number of things, but better placement might have been not after an interlude where she and Nas talk about adding something to elevate and transcend yourself! Or consider the contrast between 'The Gospel' and 'Pawn It Off' - both good songs, but 'Pawn It Off' feels immediate and visceral, where 'The Gospel' is careful to frame everything as being in the past, which doesn't help capture dramatic impact. Then you have cases where it's simply framed too broadly like on 'Kill Your Mama', an acoustic track where she sings about environmental damage humans have wrought through climate change and then she slips in the line denigrating genetic engineering and I'm left shaking my head - hate to say it, but it feels like an armchair approach to the issues, and in comparison to a track like, say, Rise Against's 'People Were Here', it doesn't capture that gravity. 'Where Do We Begin Now' gets a little closer in capturing the fear of coming out to friends and family and society, but a song played that intimately would thrive on specifics, not generalities, and we don't really get those. Again, it's a little better still on 'Holy War', juxtaposing America's puritanism against its obsession with war, but the writing skids perilously close to abstract hippie territory, the sort of utopian hypotheticals that frustrated me on Common's last album. And then there's 'Girl Can't Be Herself', her anthem of body positivity and the no-makeup movement - good message, the universal framing works, but the flighty presentation and the fact that Alicia Keys is one of the most beautiful women alive gives her a certain distance from the consequences here, even as a celebrity.

Granted, it's not all her fault here - how could she expect that on 'Blended Family', her song about loving her husband's children from a different marriage, that A$AP Rocky would mention on his verse nailing his god-sisters - but this is where we get into the production and instrumentation. And here's the thing: if you've been following Alicia Keys' albums, this is indeed a step away from her usual comfort zone - sure, she's got the foundation of her liquid, gorgeous piano playing to hold the melody, but songs like 'The Gospel', 'Pawn It All', 'She Don't Really Care/1 Luv', and 'More Than We Know' add on rougher snares, scratchier beats, and samples to add more texture, and that's before you factor in the looser backing vocal arrangements. And make no mistake, it can lead to some real highlights, like the bluesy touches in the piano melody and sharper snares on 'Pawn It All', or the watery fragments of organ on 'Illusion of Bliss' with hints of sharper guitar. But it all does feel a little safe, never too abrasive or hard-edged, and that's before you acknowledge there's significantly more acoustic guitar across this record as a whole, either as accents on 'More Than We Know' or driving the main melody on 'Kill Your Mama', 'Blended Family', 'Girl Can't Be Herself', and 'Holy War'. Which, outside of the last case lends these songs a much breezier, lighter mood than is always appropriate - hell, 'Girl Can't Be Herself' or 'Blended Family' would have fit in easily with the acoustic touched R&B of the 2000s, especially in the melodic composition. I'll also say I'm not wild about some of the filmier synths that show up on the first half of 'She Don't Really Care' and 'Where Do We Begin Now' - for as organic as this record is trying to be, they really don't fit all that well with the rest of the mix, especially in the former case against the tinkling keys and the beat switchup into a pretty liberal Nas interpolation. And then you get cases like 'Work On It' - it's trying for classic soul with the deeper drums, breathy backing vocals, and sandy beat, but for a song from Alicia to her husband, it's oddly ponderous and stiff, not particularly intimate, especially when you throw on that male vocal sample of the song's title that repeats for no adequately explained reason.

But as a whole, I'm not sure how much more I can say about this album. Sure, it's okay - Alicia sounds great, and she is taking more steps towards conscious material, but the generality of a lot of her writing and the fact that most of her instrumental experiments feel a tad light means I'm not as on board with this as I'd like to be. As such, it's a 6/10 for me and a recommendation if you're an Alicia Keys fan, but I'd point to her early 2000s work as stronger with isolated songs throughout the rest of her albums as highlights. This is indeed decent, but I get the feeling Alicia Keys could make a more challenging record if she wanted to take the risk - and at this point in her career, there's no reason why she can't.

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