The first thing someone might notice when listening to the new Kelly Clarkson record is the level of power pop that incorporates most of the album. Of course, the first thing someone might expect before listening to the new Kelly Clarkson album is the level of power pop it will have. Tracks like I Forgive You and What Doesn’t Kill You help to deliver. Yet I expect so much more from her.
Stronger continues on from the sound that she had for her last album All I Ever Wanted, which was released following the commercial flop of 2007’s My December. The interesting thing about those two records is that All I Ever Wanted has only barely surpassed sales of December despite having multiple Top 10 hits. Of course, My December had the benefit of being a highly anticipated followup to 2005’s Breakaway but the hype was shot down almost immediately to the point that a second single wasn’t promoted. It’s become almost urban legend that the entire project was sabotaged by the label and perhaps that’s why Kelly has been relegated to doing the type of songs that have made up these latest two records.
On Stronger, Kelly is involved with co-writing six of the 13 tracks that make up the regular edition, about on par with her involvement with All I Ever Wanted. My December, meanwhile, had Kelly’s involvement on every track. The focus on a Kelly song is clearly toward her voice and delivering the perfect pop song. Of course her voice has always been her strongest asset but while the delivery is there and what is delivered seems almost mundane, what’s the purpose?
That’s not to say that the only worthy Kelly Clarkson song is the one that she writes. This album is full of catchy pop hooks, many a strong chorus and likely potential radio hits. It’s to suggest that Kelly was really on to something good when she was in control of her own songs and due to record label politics, she hasn’t been able to have that type of control since. Instead, we’re given two albums of songs that have that sense of restraint and obligation.
One of the better tracks on here is the closing track, Breaking Your Own Heart. It’s perhaps the closest this album comes to delivering the obligatory radio-friendly ballad a la Already Gone or Because Of You, despite not being as obvious a hit as those two it passes them in authenticity and may just be one of the best ballads she’s recorded. Otherwise, Stronger offers up a bunch of catchy pop songs that should be a major part of the pop music landscape for the next year and a half, if this type of pop was in that is. You Love Me is insanely catchy (Kelly co-write), What Doesn’t Kill You is great on high volume (Kelly didn’t co-write) and Einstein is awkward yet catchy but hopefully gets swept under the rug unnoticed (yeah, Kelly did co-write this one).
Keep an ear out for You Can’t Win. As the title suggests, it’s a lose-lose in all situations but the presentation is perhaps the most interesting on the record: “if you go/they’ll say you’re following/if you don’t/then you’re too good for them.” Unfortunately for Kelly, she missed the feel-good-about-yourself-boat by almost a year. In fact, most of the record feels like it’s too late, as if it was transported from 2005 with the exception of Mr. Know It All, perhaps the freshest sounding song for Kelly but with its sound being similar to Bruno Mars‘ Just The Way You Are, its freshness is almost expired.
Stronger is sure to appease fans of Kelly’s biggest hits but the disappointment lies in what she could have made had she been given more freedom as an artist. The expectation is met with what Stronger turned out to be but her capability has fallen short and she is capable of so much better if allowed to do that.
1. Mr. Know It All
2. What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger)
3. Dark Side
5. You Love Me
7. Standing In Front Of You
8. I Forgive You
10. The War Is Over
11. Let Me Down
12. You Can’t Win
13. Breaking Your Own Heart
14. Don’t You Wanna Stay (with Jason Aldean)*
16. Don’t Be A Girl About It*
17. The Sun Will Rise*