Tuesday, March 3, 2015

album review: 'piece by piece' by kelly clarkson

I don't miss a lot about pop music in the mid-2000s, but one of the things I do miss is the relevance of Kelly Clarkson.

As with most reality TV show stars, nobody expected Kelly Clarkson to be huge. She might have been the first to come off of American Idol, but it wasn't like her early singles were all that interesting beyond just being pleasant enough. And speaking as one of those unfortunates who saw From Justin To Kelly and what became of future American Idols with very limited exceptions, nobody expected Kelly Clarkson to do well.

And then her second album Breakaway dropped, and with a gauntlet of songwriters that included her peer Avril Lavigne and Evanescence members Ben Moody and David Hodges, Kelly Clarkson went for pop rock in the best way possible. She took all of the powerhouse vocals that had made her a star and added a convincing rock edge that put her in the same category as artists like Pink, which was a huge positive for me - hell, I'd argue she made better music than Evanescence ever put on record in the mid-2000s! And when she decided to go even darker with My December, I had reason to be enthused, but also a little concerned. 

And for good reason, because looking back eight years later My December is a polarizing album among fans and critics alike. Mostly because it's a nasty little record with a lot of rough, exposed edges that don't exactly make it a comfortable listen. But in retrospect, I wish Kelly Clarkson had chosen to keep going in this direction, because I reckon with more time, she could have fashioned herself something just as potent as some of the Alanis Morissette she idolized.

That didn't happen. Instead, Kelly Clarkson went back to making finely tuned pop records with the guiding hands of Max Martin, Ryan Tedder, and Dr. Luke. And sure, she's made songs I like from All I Ever Wanted and Stronger, but they're nowhere near as emotionally intense as her mid-2000s material or as interesting as My December. As such, I was planning on skipping this album altogether until the requests started pouring in. But hey, she might have something here that's solid, right?

Well, I guess, if you consider solid yet another Kelly Clarkson record playing the modern pop trend that is barely distinctive from the rest, I guess you could say that. But really, considering where Kelly Clarkson started and the fact that this is her seventh album, Piece By Piece can't help but be a disappointment if only because it's so by-the-numbers and bland, not just playing to tired cliches in modern pop but cliches within Kelly Clarkson's music itself. And while there are some songs I like that try a little harder, at this point in her career she could be making a lot stronger music than this.

So let's start with Kelly Clarkson herself - and really, there's not a lot to say at this point. The rock edge is gone at this point, I'm not expecting it to be here, and instead she's working more in smoother pop music. And there is something of a stylistic shift towards more R&B and soul flavours with the incorporation of choirs and groove-driven writing - which is to be expected, given the rising presence of R&B and soul on the charts. And Kelly still has a killer voice that's expressive and emotionally driven - it might not be especially raw here, but she's got power. And yet, she really does sound checked out on this record. I don't know if it's the slower tempo or the heavier instrumentation or the monochrome production which doesn't do her a lot of favours, but on most of the more upbeat tracks it feels like she's belting with a methodical, almost military rigor. And that's not counting songs like 'Take You High' where her belting is chopped and pitch-shifted to pieces or 'Let Your Tears Fall' where it seems like the shift in vocal pick-up between the verses and chorus implies almost two different microphones or Greg Kurstin not caring as much as he should behind the production board.

Granted, I could argue that that was the problem for all of the producers working with Kelly Clarkson. Let me start by saying that Kelly Clarkson's voice and approach isn't a bad one for percussion-heavy modern pop - as much as I have a distaste for it, she's got enough power to match her percussion and enough emotive presence to hold her own. And when the tempo builds to a decent clip, the choral vocals can support her, and we get enough of a melody, she's got some potent tracks - the gleaming keyboards and echoing swell of 'Somebody', the faded guitar flutter and piano of the title track, the brittle guitar line and snare drum groove of 'War Paint', the fuzzy rollick of 'Dance With Me', and the bright late-80s inspired melodies of 'Nostalgic' that manages to actually give the keyboards and strings some swell. The problem is - like most music in this vein - is that with the melodies consigned to these faded, underweight keyboards, many of the songs start to really blur together in terms of instrumentation, and when so much of it is heavy and slower than it should be, it means the album really starts to drag. It's not even so much an issue of abusing reverb - Kelly's vocal leads have the power to not get submerged - but that when the guitars and keyboards are crushed to the back of the mix, it makes the hooks less memorable beyond the lyrics.

And as for the lyrics... well, Kelly Clarkson does not do subtle and for the most part that can work to her favour with her vocal delivery. I might not find the Sia-written song 'Invincible' all that interesting - turns out the only threat Kelly faces on that song is one in her own mind, which doesn't really fit the tone of the song all that well - but you can buy it. But really, it's not that said song is bad but that I've heard it before - Kelly Clarkson's been writing break-up jams and empowerment anthems for over a decade now, and it's rare that she provides enough detail or character to the songs to make them all that unique or special. Or when she does, she can run into issues - 'Somebody' places her in the dumping role and is actually pretty good at consoling the guy that he'll find someone, but then includes the line after she apologizes for being harsh 'sorry, I'm not sorry'. I get she's trying to be magnanimous and be firm simultaneously, but that lyric breaks the balance for me. The title track actually goes for some more personal material and tackles the bad relationship she has with her father by comparing her current husband to him and saying 'he filled the holes you burned in' - I get the emotional sentiment and it is one of the better-written songs, but the inexact parallel just strikes me as a little odd with a few lines. Or take 'War Paint', another bad relationship song that talks about breaking down barriers and being honest - but really, it's another example of Kelly's usage of heavy-handed war metaphors that always strike me as way over the top - the slow burn piano ballad 'Tightrope' worked a lot better. Probably the most human side of Kelly we get on this album is on 'Nostalgic', where she isn't so much looking for the ex to come back but is just wistful missing the good times - it's understated, a little more subtle, and she's pretty damn good at it - shame we don't find it more. Hell, I'd even prefer more songs like 'Dance With Me' - sure, it's just a dumb dance song that fits comfortably between a deep cut from Tegan & Sara's Heartthrob and Taylor Swift's 1989, but it's still pretty fun and well-executed.

But the song that probably annoyed me the most was 'I Had A Dream' - which honestly isn't a bad track but where she sings about fighting to stay on top and how music can inspire and then comes to the lyric 'Anyone can sell when they're selling out' - uh, mighty hypocritical of you to go there, Kelly, when you had twenty-seven other songwriters helping you with this album! And not counting the Christmas album, it could definitely be argued you did sell out after My December. Yeah, I get bashing the trend of using sex to sell music instead of actual content, but here's the thing: it's not like much of the actual content delivered on this is all that original or interesting or anything I haven't heard from you plenty of times before. And when you have production and instrumentation that's not rising above any one of a dozen pop divas using a similar formula.

Because objectively, I can listen to Piece By Piece and say it's fine. It's agreeable, decent enough, if you're a Kelly Clarkson fan you'll probably like it. But I can't help but feel disappointed with this - she's capable of so much better and for as much as Kelly is trying to hammer those powerful emotions and empowerment into my head, without any raw edge or gripping melodies or lyrics that rise above boiler-plate, it raises little to no impact for me, which means it's getting a strong 5/10. I'm not saying I want another 'Since U Been Gone', but seven albums into your career, there should be more than this. 

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