ADRIAN THRILLS: Alicia Keys unlocks her inner soul diva and showgirl on new album
ALICIA KEYS: Keys (RCA)
Verdict: Shows her versatility
PAUL WELLER: An Orchestrated Songbook (Polydor)
Verdict: Classics with strings
NEIL YOUNG & CRAZY HORSE: Barn (Reprise)
Verdict: One for the diehards
This year has been a big one for pop anniversaries, with Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and the fourth Led Zeppelin LP all turning 50, and The Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You given a 40th birthday reissue.
It’s been 25 years, too, since Oasis’s (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? and the first Spice Girls album.
One milestone has slipped slightly under the radar, though: 2021 also marked the 20th anniversary of Alicia Keys’s debut, Songs In A Minor.
Originally released in June 2001 (and reissued this summer), the album’s blend of traditional soul and Chopin-inspired virtuosity won five Grammys and set the New Yorker on the road to stardom.
Alicia Keys (above) has since sold 65 million records and she reiterates her versatility on a new double album that showcases her talent in full
Keys has since sold 65 million records and she reiterates her versatility on a new double album that showcases her talent in full. The record is divided into two parts — Originals and Unlocked.
The first, all soulful piano and vocals, puts the onus on Keys as a serious singer-songwriter. The second, with different versions of many of the same songs, celebrates her inner showgirl.
Originals is dominated by throwbacks to vintage jazz and soul. Skydive is a ballad punctuated by drums and piano.
Another slow song, Best Of Me, samples the moody atmospherics of Sade’s 1992 single Cherish The Day and contains a clever nod to 1999 sci-fi film The Matrix. Old Memories is a mid-tempo lament with a doo-wop feel.
The high point arrives with Is It Insane, a six-minute discourse on the pain of unrequited love that would have been worthy of the late Amy Winehouse.
With Alicia’s jazzy piano accompanied by brushed drums and upright bass, she dares to dream of wedding bells, only to brace herself for the inevitable romantic disappointment: ‘She can have you now, I just want to fade away.’
Unlocked, in contrast, captures a more incendiary musician. Reworked by R&B producer Mike Will, it takes the songs from part one and fires them up with a more robust rhythmic backing to add a contemporary edge: Skydive is funkier; Best Of Me is enhanced with electronic bleeps; Is It Insane feels much more urgent.
The high point of Alicia’s (pictured) album arrives with Is It Insane, a six-minute discourse on the pain of unrequited love that would have been worthy of the late Amy Winehouse
With a changed running order — and two R&B numbers not on Originals — this second part sometimes feels like a different artist, a contrast in styles reaffirmed by the fact that the beautiful piano ballad Paper Flowers is one of four Originals tracks not given a makeover on Unlocked.
Keys isn’t the first artist to ‘re-imagine’ an album. In the past year Taylor Swift has re-recorded Fearless and Red on the back of a rights dispute, while Dua Lipa and Paul McCartney have revisited their most recent studio efforts. But Keys has gone one step further in releasing both an original LP and an enhanced version at the same time.
I slightly prefer the Unlocked version, although the mellower Originals is perfect for late-night listening. It’s no wonder Bob Dylan, who penned the song Thunder On The Mountain largely about Keys, is such a fan: there’s something here for everyone.
Paul Weller’s ever-changing moods have given his music a vitality few of his peers can match.
A Beatles and Who-obsessed teenager in The Jam, he grew into an urbane soul boy with the Style Council in the 1980s before launching a solo career that continues to surprise.
Paul Weller’s (above) ever-changing moods have given his music a vitality few of his peers can match
He’s on the move again with An Orchestrated Songbook — his first album of symphonic arrangements.
Recorded last May at London’s Barbican, with conductor Jules Buckley and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, it adds sumptuous strings and horns to tracks spanning his entire catalogue.
It’s all done with finesse: Buckley’s deft orchestrations frame the songs superbly without blanketing them in bombast.
The Modfather became a grandfather in September when his daughter Leah gave birth to a son, and Weller wisely avoids the anthems of his firebrand youth.
There’s no space for In The City or Town Called Malice, but he does reinterpret two mellower Jam tracks, casting English Rose in a fresh light and turning Carnation into a cinematic piece with a Disney-like harp finale.
Neil Young (above) stays on familiar ground on a new album with Crazy Horse — his backing band on After The Gold Rush and Tonight’s The Night
The Style Council get a look-in with My Ever Changing Moods and a version of You’re The Best Thing that retains the original’s soulful essence.
Boy George duets on the latter, and there are further cameos from Celeste, on Wild Wood; and James Morrison, whose raspy tone is the perfect foil for Weller’s softer timbre, on Broken Stones.
The singer, 63, has hit a rich vein of writing form and his three most recent albums — True Meanings, On Sunset and Fat Pop (Volume 1) — are well represented. Equanimity is rebooted with a brassy, fairground feel, and On Sunset’s title track, a six-minute soul symphony, lends itself beautifully to the orchestral treatment.
Reunited with Crazy Horse — his backing band on After The Gold Rush and Tonight’s The Night — Neil Young stays on familiar ground on a new album of gnarly rockers and sweet ballads recorded in the Colorado Rockies and titled after the restored 19th-century barn in which it was made.
The highly-anticipated album ends with a touching romantic ballad in Don’t Forget Love
The legacy of lockdown is his inspiration on Song Of The Seasons, as he looks through his window at ‘masked people walking everywhere, it’s humanity in my sights’, while Shape Of You — not the Ed Sheeran song — is a honky-tonk ode to his actress wife, Daryl Hannah.
With Nils Lofgren on piano, he offers a vivid snapshot of his teenage years in Winnipeg on Heading West, but his tone is heavy-handed on the eco-rocker Human Race.
The album ends with a touching romantic ballad in Don’t Forget Love, but Young’s eighth new album in eight years is essentially one for his more ardent fans.
Alicia Keys starts a tour on June 9, 2022, at the Utilita Arena, Birmingham (aliciakeys.com). Paul Weller starts his tour on March 31, 2022, at Plymouth Pavilions (paulweller.com).