Alicia Keys, “Here” (RCA)
This New Yorker has always displayed her talents as a jazzily soulful singer, pianist and composer effortlessly and breezily. She never had to try to be or to have — or so it seemed. That’s probably why, after the overly grand, overwrought but bland, forced-anthem overdrive of her last album, “Girl on Fire,” she’s gone smaller, funnier, funkier and humbler with the New York stories of “Here” and its sometimes prickly peek at politics, social and personal issues.
Sleek without being slick, spare without being empty, raw without being rough, Keys benefits from having a husband (Swizz Beatz) with friends (Pharrell, Illangelo) in the R&B/rap production game whose lives spill into the shimmering rough diamond soul of “Blended Family” and the street scenes of “The Gospel.”
Emotive and experimental (in a percussive sense, with vibraphonist Roy Ayers up front throughout), “Here” moves from the broad battle of “Holy War” to the communal howl of “More Than We Know.” The best parts of “Here,” though, are its rich, avant-soul epics “Illusion of Bliss” and “She Don’t Really Care - 1 Luv.” The latter elegantly and eerily connects the dots between Africa and New York’s boroughs with grace and smarts. Gorgeous stuff.
A.D. Amorosi, Philadelphia Inquirer
Sting, “57th & 9th” (Interscope)
Somebody should drag 65-year-old Sting, with his stress lines and bloodshot eye, “half-blind and deaf as any post,” into a studio with a rock ’n’ roll band more often. For the most part on his first album since 2014’s mannered “The Last Ship,” the former Police frontman foregoes the woodwinds, plays down the big statements and mostly lets himself relax. The scratchy “Petrol Head,” with boisterous backing by members of a San Antonio Tex-Mex band called Last Bandoleros, is Sting’s most punkish song in decades.
Fluteless, luteless and jazz-free, the first three songs express gloomy sentiments in cathartic ways. “I Can’t Stop Thinking About You” is a sturdy, Police-like rocker that might have been the album’s best song were it not for the cliché “this heart’s a lonely hunter.” “50,000,” which Sting has said he wrote the week Prince died, offsets low, talky verses on meaning and mortality with a killer guitar riff and a “Wrapped Around Your Finger”-like chorus. And “Down, Down, Down,” a midtempo rocker about drowning and sinking, takes nearly a minute to break the tension but is worth the wait.
Sting being Sting, “57th & 9th” detours into heavy-handed “Russians” territory — “One Fine Day” tries to be gently sarcastic in dealing with the climate-change crisis, but it’s too often clunky and simplistic. Acoustic-guitar folk ballad “Heading South on the Great North Road” seems like an outtake from “The Last Ship,” but that makes the equally downbeat “Inshallah,” in which Sting sets his deep thoughts about European refugees to bongos and soft guitars, more effective. It’s too bad the man who wrote “Roxanne” and “So Lonely” couldn’t full-on rock for an entire album, but we take what we can get.
STEVE KNOPPER, Newsday
• Bruno Mars, “24K Magic”
• Metallica, “Hard-Wired to Self Destruct”
• Miranda Lambert, “The Weight of These Wings”
• Justice, “Woman”
• Solange, “A Seat at the Table”
• DNCE, “DNCE”