The US diva album for those who can’t abide US divas.
Daryl Easlea 2009
Whenever an artist describes their latest work as “a journey”, invariably the only journey a listener wishes to embark on is the one to the off switch. But Keys’ canny ability to fox and beguile make The Element of Freedom an unexpected pleasure.
Keys has explained that this, her fourth album, is “a dichotomy of strength and vulnerability”. It certainly showcases her willingness to experiment while ruminating on longing and falling for a wrong ’un. Keys’ vocal is tender, raw with emotion, and is frequently matched with the noisiest drum programming you’ll hear in the context of a multi-platinum, Grammy-rich soul artist. The beats of lead single Doesn’t Mean Anything, programmed by Kerry ‘Krucial’ Brothers (Keys’ long-time recording partner and possibly, ex-paramour), were actually rattling things off my speakers.
Perhaps Brothers is the missing, spectral subject matter at the heart of the album. Loss courses through its lyrics: “anticipating a day you’ll come home,” in Distance and Time; “how can I ever get used to being without you,” in Love Is My Disease. It culminates in the tentative hope of new beginnings on How It Feels to Fly. The overall effect is quite surprisingly moving.
Love Is Blind opens the album and is fairly characteristic; it’s like a more melodic version of Kanye West’s Say You Will. This Bed (with Keys on Moog bass) is the greatest lost Philadelphia International Records’ love song you’ll hear in a long while; Beyoncé appears and duets on the bright and clattering Put It in a Love Song. The album closes with Keys’ own version of Empire State of Mind, building on her vocal refrain and bridge from her collaboration with Jay-Z. If ever a song was awaiting a Broadway show to be written around it, this is it. With the rap removed, its straight, literal descriptions of New York and elegant grand piano mean this is the only time the album strays fully into cliché.
The lasting impression of The Element of Freedom will be the disconnect between the prettiness of the songs and the enormity of the beats. Alicia Keys has just made the US diva album for those who can’t abide US divas.