Album Review – Kelly Clarkson – “Stronger”

Kelly Clarkson

Stronger

* * * *

At first listen, Stronger seemed like an album in desperate need of a vacation in sound. But the richness of this project became more clear to me as I kept hitting the repeat button on the CD player.

Lead single “Mr. Know It All” is a sunny and upbeat pop number complete with an infectious beat and charming vocal from Clarkson. It’s one of those songs that effortlessly glides off the tongue so much so, you don’t know you’re singing along until it’s over. Co-written by country songwriter Brett James with Brian Seals, Ester Dean, and Dante Jones, I much prefer the original pop recording over the country one because it sounds more natural.

The dance pop “What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger),” the second single, also delivers on the charm. The beat and melody are so contagious, you can’t help but want to sing and dance along. In addition, “Stronger” succeeds in taking the proverb that inspired it and presenting it in a way that sounds fresh opposed to trite. It could’ve so easily been caught up in what inspired it, but the writers (Jorgen Elofsson, Ali Tamposi, David Gamson, and Greg Kurstin) succeed in making it an anthem.

Luckily, the rest of the album follows suit in matching the quality of the singles. If you’re looking for Clarkson to build on the success of “Don’t You Wanna Stay,” her duet with Jason Aldean, than you’ve come to the wrong place.  She loves and appreciates country music, but she sings pop music because it’s the most natural fit.

As evidence, look no further than the excellent “Dark Side” in which Clarkson sings, “Everybody’s Got A Dark Side/Can You Love Me/Can You Love Mine?” More than any other song on the project, this one stays in my head the most. It’s similar in vein to the first two singles and will likely follow suit as either the third or fourth. But what draws me in most is the air of mystery – just what is Clarkson’s “Dark Side?” That we’ll likely never know makes the song all the more intriguing.

Other album highlights include the arena thumper “Let Me Down” which recalls Florence + The Machine and “You Can’t Win,” an example of angst rock done right.  On the latter, I love the way Clarkson’s vocal builds and she gets angrier and more spiteful.

“You Love Me” Clarkson’s most personal song on the album, took her ten years to compose, and it stands as her rebuttal against those in the pop/rock industry who’ve done her wrong. I love the brutal honesty of the lyric and her classy way of having the last word.

Another memorable song, “I Forgive You” opens with a ear-catching guitar riff that draws you in and holds your attention throughout the duration of the song. But what really makes it stand out is the lyric, which displays another dimension of Clarkson’s persona. She rarely tackles songs in this vein and it’s a nice change to see her able to sing about forgiveness opposed to always leaning towards the revenge rockers.

And as much as Clarkson loves her uptempo numbers, she also has an affinity for ballads, and the ones included here are quite alluring.

“Standing In Front Of You,” co-wrttien by Clarkson with Aben Eubanks is a standard pop ballad complete with the breathy vocal treatment, but Clarkson does these songs so well. I love the drum and string accompaniment throughout – they add nice steady beats to the production and succeed in guiding the gentle vibe of the song along nicely. The soft touches in her vocal performance are stunning as she displays beautiful vulnerability that doesn’t come across in her uptempo work.

On the same note, “Breaking Your Own Heart” does add a thread of country-esque sensibility to the album, but I find little in her delivery that suggests country music. No matter, though, as she doesn’t need country music to shine. In songs like this, she’s found her niche, able to blend all those influences into one melting pot.

The other ballad, also the iTunes album only bonus track, is “Why Don’t You Try.” Neither straightforward pop nor down home country, it seems to gain inspiration from Alicia Keys’s “If I Ain’t Got You.” The song works surprisingly well and perfectly showcases Clarkson’s R&B stylings.

In thinking about the album I always fail to think about “Honestly” which tends to fade into the background. Another radio-ready pop number, the production recalls Sixpence None The Richer’s “Kiss Me” but less shimmery. I’d bet this would also be in high contention for a single release.

The Sheryl Crow-infused “Hello” and the drum heavy “The War Is Over” are also great, but like “Honestly,” don’t stand out enough in comparison to the rest of the project.

While I love most of the album, I can’t ignore the weak spots. I’m still on the fence about “Einstein,” another Clarkson co-write, and it’s infamous line “dumb  plus dumb equals you.” Part of me wants to give in and celebrate the biting attitude she’s going for, but it really is stupid. The song fails by trying to use mathematical metaphors to put a unique spin on a revenge ballad. The result is cheesy.

And “The Sun Will Rise,” her duet with former American Idol judge and pop songwriter Kara Dioguardi, fails because it tries too hard and doesn’t do the duet aspects justice. Could you even distinguish between the two voices? Listening to it, did you even know she was singing with someone else? She could do better than this.

All and all Stronger‘s greatest strength comes from how perfectly it captures Clarkson’s energy from her stage show. This is arena ready music without sacrificing the intimacy.

It might not be revelatory music or change the world, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. Of all the disposable and flash-centric pop artists out there, it’s nice to see one who’s still as down home as when she debuted on Idol ten years ago. For anyone looking for great pop music, Stronger more than delivers.

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