"New Day." "101." "Brand New Me." The song titles on Alicia Keys' fifth studio album suggest she's exploring previously untouched ground: perhaps her life with producer Swizz Beatz, whom she married in 2010, or the son she gave birth to later that year. What's more, "Girl on Fire" finds Keys assembling an impressive new crew of forward-looking collaborators, including Emeli Sandé, Frank Ocean and Jamie Smith of the xx. In the slow-burning "Fire We Make," she doubles down on the here-and-now vibe, trading breathy vocal lines with Maxwell over fuzzy soul-blues guitar by Gary Clark Jr.
Yet in spite of that fresh blood, "Girl on Fire" basically delivers the same payload as Keys' other albums; it's a collection of handsomely crafted, gorgeously sung ballads interrupted by several overworked anthems about the value of perseverance.
The familiarity of that formula doesn't diminish "Tears Always Win," a Motown-crinkly lament that Keys cowrote with Bruno Mars, or the folky, Babyface-produced "That's When I Knew." Nor does it take away from the spacey loveliness of "Listen to Your Heart," which John Legend helped pen. But there's something so typical about the booming title track and "New Day" — both of which feel cut from the same cloth as "No One" and "Doesn't Mean Anything" — that it's hard to hear what Keys is trying to tell us.