ALICIA KEYS: AS I AM (2007)
1) As I Am [Intro]; 2) Go Ahead; 3) Superwoman; 4) No One; 5) Like You'll Never See Me Again; 6) Lesson Learned; 6) Wreckless Love; 7) The Thing About Love; 8) Teenage Love Affair; 9) I Need You; 10) Where Do We Go From Here; 11) Prelude To A Kiss; 12) Tell You Something (Nana's Reprise); 13) Sure Looks Good To Me.
Is it just funny old me, or does she always put one or two best songs at the start, only to lure us into her misty, treacherous swamp of mediocrity? Or is it just some sort of tricky aural hallucination caused by certain psychological expectations?
Regardless, As I Am is Alicia's weakest album so far and a dangerous indication that, instead of honing and refining her skills, she is completely succumbing to trends and fashions and the bland nothingness of the '00s. It rarely, if ever, sounds awful, but it's curiously flat — for instance, she seems to be playing more piano than she did on Diary (subjective impression), but it's buried so deep in the mix that it practically doesn't matter (objective fact). She mostly eschews electronica in favour of real instruments, but the players are so utterly generic and uninspired that it doesn't matter much, either. Several reviewers stated that on As I Am, her goal is to make a 'soul-pop' album, finding a balance between groove and catchy melody, but I only see that the grooves fail to be incendiary, and the melodies aren't any catchier than they used to be.
This approach does work well on the album opener 'Go Ahead', one of the most cutely hateful tunes she ever did (the chorus, with its descending strings of no-no-no's, is an excellent, evocative creation); and I am almost ashamed for liking the single 'Superwoman' — despite thinking that it is in extremely bad taste to claim that you're 'Super-'anything in any of your creations, no matter how ironic or metaphorical you think you are being. (As far as I can remember, only Ringo Starr managed to get away with this when singing 'I'm The Greatest').
But 'Superwoman' wasn't the lead-off single. The lead-off single was the sentimental Celine Dion send-up 'No One'; and its immediate follow-up was the even more pathetic 'Like You'll Never See Me Again'; and its follow-up was the thoroughly generic dance-pop number 'Teenage Love Affair', all of them songs that fit well within the MTV schedule but are destined for about half an hour of shelf life at most.
It is hard for me to understand that — unless it is true that radio-aired singles these days are selected based on unremarkability (as in, people mostly listen to the radio when driving along the highway, and they don't really need to be distracted by anything unusual under these circumstances, because non-trivial chords and arrangements increase the danger of accident). It's the only explanation I can offer for why, for instance, 'Wreckless Love', unquestionably the most interestingly written song on the album's second half, wasn't considered for single release. This tune shows that Keys hasn't yet forgotten the power of emotion-charged vocal twists (watch out for the echoey, acappella bridge sections), but she is willing to sacrifice it... for what? She is a star already, she can allow herself to concentrate on her creative side rather than her submissive side. 'Superwoman' can surely do better than this.
For now, alas, I only see one more instance of how a definitely talented person is slowly being devoured by the MTV-licensed lawnmower — instead of trying to shape herself into a brick that would crush its slicers, she has become invalidated by the machine herself. Maybe it's not too late, but I doubt it; few people come out alive once they've spent a few years under the gadget, and I don't sense the necessary amount of artistic stability in Keys to be able to overcome it. Too bad, because we really need an inside agent in that machine to stall it, and this means that the search for such an agent has to be begun from scratch. Thumbs down, down, down, down.