It’s probably unfair to expect more from Alicia Keys, a singer-songwriter who has sold 35 million albums in a decade. But with her prowess as a pianist and flexibility as a singer, her ability to infuse new-school rhythms with old-school soul signifiers, greatness always seems within reach. Keys often pays lip-service to the notion of putting artistry ahead of commercial ambition, but much of her music still feels remote, speaking in generalities rather than in the personal specifics that define great R&B singers.
No blood, no tears, no sweat – not many artists are willing to give that much to their music. But when they do, they can make even the most banal sentiments sound earth-shattering. Keys never leaves herself that vulnerable. She specializes in the skin-deep, not the soul-wrecking.
Despite being hyped as her most “personal” album, “Girl on Fire” (RCA) is really just more of the same. She shakes up her collaborators, working with new songwriting partners such as U.K. upstart Emeli Sande, Odd Future’s Frank Ocean and Bruno Mars. She resists trend-riding – you won’t find any walloping electronic-dance-music rhythms or hip-hop cameos (save for Nicki Minaj on the title track). But she keeps her guard up and the listener at arm’s length.
Keys celebrates her marriage to producer Swizz Beatz and birth of her now 2-year-old son with written-by-committee songs that reveal no emotional secrets and offer no surprises beyond their generic titles: “Brand New Me,” “New Day,” “Listen to Your Heart.” Rebirth, renewal, self-empowerment – these themes might be terrific buzz words for a self-help book, but Keys never humanizes them, no matter how many times she lets a rasp creep into her voice.
In their between-the-sheets duet on “Fire We Make,” Keys and Maxwell take turns tossing clichés about candles, heat and moths being drawn to the flame. Gary Clark Jr. arrives with a guitar solo that throws some much needed dissonance at the sleep-walking couple, but it’s too late. Similarly, the Babyface acoustic number “That’s When I Knew” talks in circles around a critical moment in Keys’ love life, without probing too deeply. At least there are a couple of catchy tunes: the bouncy, gospel-tinged “Tears Always Win,” co-written by Mars, and the Caribbean-flavored parade-drum celebration of “New Day.”
By far the album’s best track is one buried near the end, Ocean’s “One Thing,” a song rife with stark images (“square face and puffy eyes”) and vulnerability (“I need a gentle word, I need your company”). When Keys’ understated delivery shifts into a delicate, upper-register plea, she sounds as genuine and moving as she’s ever been on a recording. No wonder those high expectations for what Alicia Keys might do just won’t die.