By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
More than a year has passed since Bob Dylan salivated over Alicia Keys in song, but the true meaning behind the old bard's reference to the young soulstress remains a mystery.
"I was thinking about Alicia Keys, couldn't help from crying," Dylan croaked. "When she was born in Hell's Kitchen, I was living down the line."
Keys doesn't deliver any sort of riposte on her disappointing new album, "As I Am," but she seems to think that she and Dylan are simpatico. "We are kindred spirits," she told the Times of London. "He writes from the heart, he writes from the soul -- so do I." Keys added that she is, in fact, thinking about including a comeback line in a future song, but that " 'Dylan' is not very easily rhymeable."
Actually, it is. Here, Alicia, are just a few of the many possibilities: Penicillin. Villain. Calvin Trillin. Killin'. Fill-in. Nate McMillan.
That Keys has struggled to craft a lyric with Dylan's name in it speaks to her limitations as a writer. She's an effective but generally unimaginative lyricist whose writing tends to be simple, weirdly impersonal and wholly average, with a few exceptions -- not least her terrific singles "Fallin' " and "You Don't Know My Name."
That she thinks she and Dylan are kindred spirits speaks to a different problem: She apparently believes her own press.
Since her arrival in 2001 -- when music impresario Clive Davis presented her to the world, and the world responded by buying 11 million copies of her debut, "Songs in A Minor" -- Keys has been heralded as some sort of great and rare new talent whose work has some lofty data points: Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Lauryn Hill and the like. (On "Fallin'," she also laid claim to the chords from James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World.")
Awards and additional accolades followed for Keys, as have the hits. But one thing is still missing from the ingenue's résumé: A truly great album that proves she is, indeed, talented enough to deserve all those hosannas.
That doesn't change with the arrival of her third studio recording, "As I Am," which is uneven, unfocused and never gets around to answering the critical question of exactly what -- or, rather, who -- Keys is, other than a 27-year-old artist still in search of an identity.
Is she an old-school soul singer with classical-piano chops? A hip-hop kid trapped in an R&B artist's body? A Prince wannabe? A pop star in the vein of Christina Aguilera, Gwen Stefani or Pink?
As it turns out: Yes. To all of it.
Whether she's actually on a journey to find herself artistically or is just under orders to appeal to as many people as possible isn't totally clear. But there is reason to be suspicious: The collaboration with John Mayer ("Lesson Learned"), the sudden arrival of pop-rock queen Linda Perry as a songwriting partner and the record-company propaganda that positions Keys on "As I Am" as a cross between Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin certainly smacks of a crass, Clive-directed crossover gambit.
As with every Alicia Keys album, this one -- co-written and co-produced by Keys -- certainly has its high points: the impassioned throwback soul of "Wreckless Love"; the righteous-women's anthem "Go Ahead"; the sexy, Prince-ly "Like You'll Never See Me Again," by far the album's best track.
But more often, the songs fall flat, done in by limp production and ill-conceived arrangements, such as the faux-reggae treatment of "No One" and the piano-ballad treacle of "Prelude to a Kiss." While the lyrics are supposed to be deeply personal, there's something generic about them and they're riddled with cliches, as in the female empowerment anthem "Superwoman," co-authored by Perry. Also, while Keys's singing is raw and impassioned throughout the album, it sometimes feels like manufactured emotion.
This is a modern-soul great?
When Dylan thinks of Keys, he can't help but cry. When I think of her, I can't help but type "overrated."
DOWNLOAD THESE:"Like You'll Never See Me Again," "Go Ahead," "Wreckless Love"