wears the trousers magazine

alicia keys: the element of freedom (2009)
December 15, 2009, 10:52 am
Filed under: album, review | Tags: , ,

Alicia Keys
The Element Of Freedom ••••

If freedom really were an element, it would surely be the noblest of gases. And it seems Alicia Keys has been letting plenty of it go to her head between her last album and this, her fourth studio offering; it’s a record that swoops and soars like a majestic, melancholy eagle through thick and curling clouds of grief. The opening title track sets the tone for the whole piece, a 12-second voiceover claiming that the day has come “when the risk it took to remain tightly closed in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to bloom”. It’s a strong, affirming message couched like a pearl in the cold shell of uncertainty and pain (not to mention a healthy dose of reverb).

What is most evident throughout the whole of The Element Of Freedom is Keys’ evolution and development, not only in terms of her art but also her philosophy; there are more nuances here, she seems comfortable with showing a new softness, greater vulnerability. The production has been impeccably pared back to complement her two most stupendous gifts – the river-like flow of her pianist fingers and her quicksilver voice – while the rest of the instrumentation serves to swell the emotions conjured up by the songwriting. The drums in particular play an impressive role in providing strength of support to the delicacy of the songs at all the right moments, like a wrestler lifting a ballerina.

There are a few gimmicky quirks of production which may not be to everyone’s taste, such as the repeated blip of a submarine on ‘Love Is Blind’, or the overtly poppy feel of ‘Love Is My Disease’, but the overall effect is of a production that’s well-judged in terms of instrumentation that also manages to be edgy. The progressive use of an ’80s influence in tracks like ‘Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart’ and ‘Like The Sea’ puts straightforward ’80s revivalists (mentioning no names La Roux) to shame. There is one alarming moment at the start of ‘That’s How Strong My Love Is’ which sounds note-for-note like the piano introduction to ‘Right Here Waiting’ by Richard Marx, an unfortunate musical by-product of the era, but happily this is dispelled with a couple of classical flourishes and a chorus so sweet angels could spread it on their toast.

The Element Of Freedom has benefitted from some choice collaborations between Keys and the cream of the American R&B scene, in the form of the ubiquitous Beyoncé on ‘Put It In A Love Song’ and new arrival Drake on ‘Unthinkable (I’m Ready)’. The former was written for the club in the same way that Braille is written for the blind, and while Beyoncé is never going to achieve full-on feminist credentials (“You say you love me, then put me in a love song” isn’t going to inspire the next generation of Ani DiFrancos), the pounding beats and sheer contagion of the track lights a fire in the caveman part of the brain that is impossible to quell without moving to the dancefloor.

The sequencing of the tracks is something which has evidently been orchestrated carefully; “The way that the songs progress [on the album] are gonna take you on a natural high. I just want you to feel a sense of freedom, I want you to feel out-of-the-box, feel inspired…It’s a journey,” says Keys, and like all good journeys, the final destination does not disappoint, the last and best track of the album being ‘Empire State Of Mind (Part II) Broken Down)’ (Part I, of course, originally recorded as a sample on a Jay-Z track of the same name). Keys’ version of the song is lushly instrumental and allows the full range of her emotion to be laid bare; a celebratory ode to her home city gains a haunting, raw quality which cannot fail to raise the bumps on the flesh. Alas, it’s over too soon.

Katy Knight
UK release date: 14/12/09; www.myspace.com/aliciakeys


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