Review: Kelly Clarkson's 'Stronger' is weak on identity
Singles at competition with themselves
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On Kelly Clarkson’s new song “You Love Me,” the singer bemoans her own disintegration: “I’m just a sinking ship” she bawls, as though from said ship. “I’m not as strong as you think.”
This after she’s already declared, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” from Jorgen Elofsson-penned “What Doesn’t Kill You.”
Has Clarkson not been “killed” enough? How much longer does she need to stay in pain?
Because pain and disappointment still spill from the liner notes of the original “American Idol’s” newest album “Stronger.” Loudly lamenting the state of her romantic affairs is no new go-to for Clarkson – and it’s honestly what she does best – but the quantitative and qualitative volume at which she delivers is what makes each new song on “Stronger” just sound like its at competition with itself.
It’s another testament that a Kelly Clarkson album is only as good as its, well, strongest singles. “Mr. Know It All” came out the gate this summer as strident as anything yielded from 2009’s “All I Ever Wanted.” “What Doesn’t Kill You” could be adopted large-scale first through the LGBT community, because it is one perfect, strong-headed gay anthem, even if accidentally. “Let Me Down” has the drums and guns from Lenny Kravitz’ tougher-talking singles, Clarkson’s voice doubled, harmonized and lifted into outer-space to the sound of lasers and brought back to earth with the bop of a piano. It kills.
But after these, it’s hard to see what else will make this album stand out. “The War Is Over” is a spectacular vocal performance, among her best, but it’s pockmarked by unnecessary backing vocals and overproduction. Exhausting “I Forgive You” drowns in an unforgivable amount of synths and guitars, numbing litter all over a perfectly serviceable refrain. It’s clap-track overload on “Hello” which said “goodbye” to my memory bank very nearly as it ascended there.
And for a name so brainy, “Einstein” is so inexplicably stupid. Uncomfortable with the name-calling? She started it: “Dumb plus dumb equals you.” I’m simply astounded Clarkson was able to get through a series of vocal takes during which she didn’t erupt into a calamity of laughter. At 13 songs, she could have afforded to leave it out of the equation.
And with as many producers as there were songs, there was bound to be some inconsistencies on sound, though a few some help the album withstand the combination of Clarkson’s gale-force voice and the SUV approach to arrangements (bigger is better). Slow-dancing “Breaking Your Own Heart,” which tries to put the breaks on the belittling injustices of romance, is a slide guitar shy of a country crossover hit. “Dark Side” has a lot of potential, in its junkyardy rhythm section and a devoted chugging guitar over her dreamy verses. I wish jingly “Standing in Front of You” was a song about Christmas because then it could be easily licensed to sell a few cars.
Clarkson has said in interviews that “Stronger” is about strength, and empowerment; I wish that, at this point in her career, she steered her co-writes and delivery away from the same stable of instability. She’s always singing about needing her lovers to be something more: why can’t she lead by example?