ALICIA KEYS: The Element Of Freedom (Label: J Records)

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ALICIA KEYS: The Element Of Freedom

Even before her remarkable debut album, Alicia Keys was hailed as the saviour of 21st. century soul. The crucial second album proved the prophets right and her last full studio album consolidated that position. Sadly, this – the lady’s fourth full studio album – doesn’t take things further. It seems that the Native New Yorker has found her comfort zone and is happy to recycle the ideas that have already brought her 12 Grammies. In many ways that’s perfectly understandable but maybe, just maybe, it was the hunger that made those first two albums in particular so damn good. Don’t get me wrong, by most peoples’ standards ‘The Element Of Freedom’ is a fine album but it just doesn’t excite in the way we’ve come to expect. It will delight Keys’ legions of fans (they’ll lap up all the lady’s classic trademarks) but it will leave non-believers asking why all the fuss … a vignette best typified by the first single, ‘Doesn’t Mean A Thing’. By Alicia Keys’ standards it’s a pedestrian affair and the song chosen as the follow-up, ‘Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart’ is even less ground breaking. Indeed its overall sound reminded me of Ultravox’s drab ‘Vienna’ – a nightmare relived on ‘Love Is Blind’. ‘Love Is My Disease’ is the big set piece dramatic ballad, but it fails to ignite, ditto ‘How It Feels To Fly’, ‘Distance And Time’ and ‘Wait Till You See Me Smile’ (I smiled at the Elton John style staccato piano!). Best cuts are where Alicia crafts the songs to match the delicate vulnerability of her voice – ‘That’s How Strong My Love Is’ (not the Otis Redding classic, by the way) and ‘This Bed’. That one is a simple, yet effective light beater and rivals a take on ‘Empire State Of Mind’ as the LP’s soul standout. The paean to NYC samples the Moments’ ‘Love On A Two way Street’ but decent as it is it doesn’t match the beauty of things like ‘You Don’t Know My Name’. That leaves the album’s single biggest set piece – ‘Put It In A Love Song’. This duet with Beyonce was produced by Alicia’s new on/off beau – the controversial Swizz Beatz – and it’s the one real departure from classic Keys. It’s a big club booty shaker – more Beyonce than Alicia – and begs the question if she can diversify in that way, why not in others? Still, it’ll get both ladies more MTV plays (not that they need ’em) and ensure that Alicia’s comfort zone stays just that – ultra comfortable.
(BB) 3/5