Alicia Keys’ new album Girl on Fire begins with a flourish of elegance on De Novo Adagio that sets the tone for the rest of the recording.
The New York City singer/songwriter/pianist’s fifth record leans into lush R&B ballads that are keyboard and beat based.
Keys’ songwriting style is based on sparse and resonant piano tracks, and here the music is enhanced by a wide cast of musicians and guest producers. While too many to name, the end result is a warm recording dominated by Keys’ chill-inducing voice and dark jazz-classical piano.
Beats and electronic adornments are used sparingly to augment the tracks. Brand New Me is one of the highlights for its blend of urban sophistication, hopeful lyrics and overall musical uplift. The dynamics and crescendo are natural and impressive and Keys’ vocal is expressive and candid.
There’s moments when Keys’ soulful restraint gets trumped by slickness and sampling but manages to walk the fine line between excess and groove (New Day). Otherwise the pairing of her fine vocal and piano talents is a catalyst to unite the small army of producers and studio personnel.
Of course there are the inevitable duets but they don’t obscure the movement of the music.
Title track Girl on Fire is a high point on the album featuring a soaring Keys’ chorus over a big beat and largely brief and unessential Nicki Minaj rap. Elsewhere Keys enlists Maxwell on the sexy and self-explanatory Fire We Make.
The CD keeps its flow steady, going with ballads and R&B to the forefront and the stellar Keys piano and voice combo reassert dominance again towards the end.
The trilogy of Tears Always Win, Not Even the King, and That’s When I Knew are smooth, modern soul tracks that emphasize traditional instrumentation and mood-over-matter song writing. Keys’ performance on the latter is a dynamic display of passionate delivery.
Despite the wait, Keys pulls a surprise out of her songbook to end on the haunting and moving 101 – just her voice and piano, but it’s enough.
– Dean Gordon-Smith is a Vernon, B.C.-based musician and freelance music critic.