Last month, Alicia Keys gave an interview to a women’s magazine in which she expounded on her life during the pandemic. Anyone who has found it hard to motivate themselves over the past two years – first paralysed by lockdown, then plagued by the sense that there’s no point doing anything given the ongoing state of the world – may be pleased to learn that even 65m-selling singer-songwriters found themselves in a similar pickle. When asked whether all this time at home had fuelled her creativity, she said that wasn’t her experience at all. “I didn’t even know how to work. What was I supposed to work on? Where was I supposed to work? And when? It was so much of making sure everything was organised and the kids were good’.”
But when considering Keys’ hopelessly unproductive pandemic, it’s probably worth noting that some people’s idea of being not knowing how to work involves in front of Netflix while drunkenly balancing a takeaway on their ever-swelling stomach – and some people’s, wel, doesn’t. In the time since Covid-19 hit, Alicia Keys has variously released and promoted an autobiography; launched her own “skincare and wellness” brand; recorded and released a collaborative single with Brandi Carlile encouraging voter registration in the US election; promoted a 20th-anniversary edition of her debut album, Songs in A Minor; helmed a 21-day online meditation programme in collaboration with Deepak Chopra; starred in her own YouTube docuseries, Noted, alongside her husband Swizz Beatz (“Episode 3: Me And Swizz Are Holding Nothing Back About Our Love”); appeared in commercials for Mercedes-Benz and US insurance company Allstate; and announced her first graphic novel.
She also found time to write and record her eighth album, which is an hour and a half and 26 tracks long: it’s effectively the same album twice, first in “broken down” “Originals” versions – the same phrase she used to describe her piano-and-vocals version of Empire State of Mind – then versions described as “Unlocked”, which feature Mike Will Made It co-producing with Keys.
It’s a strange and perhaps unique enterprise. The Originals versions carry neither the show-me-your-workings quality of demos, nor the raw, stripped-down force of “unplugged” sessions – they’re slickly produced in their own right. Nor does it feel like the spread betting of Shania Twain’s 2002 album Up!, which came out simultaneously in country, pop and Bollywood versions. Its author has likened it to contemporary remix albums of old tracks by Nina Simone, someone a less self-assured artist might think twice about comparing themselves to, particularly given what’s on offer here.
The first album exists in a space bordered by classic soul, early-70s singer-songwriters, the more upmarket end of MOR and jazz, which is pretty much where Keys started out, albeit without a song as undeniable as her breakthrough hit Fallin’. There is good material – the Bond-theme orchestration of Nat King Cole; the sweet paean to spring Daffodils (or is it an allegory about the end of the Trump regime, or the loosening of Covid restrictions?) – but more often its contents provoke faint praise: it’s pretty, nicely played. Is It Insane is the kind of thing that simultaneously points up Keys’ strengths and weaknesses: it’s a beautifully sung torch-y ballad, but letting it run over six minutes amounts to rattling on, and covering it in fake crackle, as if it’s being played off an old shellac 78, labours the point.
Things pick up considerably on Keys Unlocked: the jump in excitement levels between the Originals version of Only You and its “produced” version – decorated with snatches of sampled vocals and the occasional burst of gunfire – is immediately striking. Sometimes the improvements are straightforward: the retro soul ballad Old Memories has its tempo picked up; Is It Insane is better for having two minutes lopped off its running time. Sometimes they’re more intricate: freshly draped in electronics, Best of Me’s atmosphere is significantly shifted to a summery drift; Dead End Road, nothing special in its original version, gains something from the addition of a woozy-sounding synthesiser.
Maar, like Keys’ notion of pandemic productivity, it’s all relative. Unlocked is definitely a better album than Originals, but not an amazing album in its own right. Undeniable, sucker-punch songs are still notable by their absence – it’s certainly not a description that fits one track that doesn’t have an Originals counterpart, Lala, an Auto-Tuned ramble featuring Swae Lee that samples Tyrone Davis’ fabulous 1979 slow jam In the Mood. You’re left with an album that seems to say less about Alicia Keys’ boundless creativity than it does about both the art of the record producer and the limitations of said art, which can improve an average song but can’t transform one into something extraordinary. You can’t help thinking that wasn’t really the intention.
Saint Etienne – Her Winter Coat
Not a Christmas song per se, but a glorious, chilly, melancholy, seasonal breeze that confirms Saint Etienne’s ongoing renaissance.