Thursday, November 2, 2017

album review: 'meaning of life' by kelly clarkson

Okay, let's try this again.

For those of you who don't know, when I covered Piece By Piece by Kelly Clarkson in 2015 I was, to put it mildly, underwhelmed. It wasn't that it was precisely bad, but it certainly was forgettable and sloppily produced and often poorly written to boot, the sort of record that really didn't add anything new or interesting to the pop culture conversation. It really only was redeemed by the fact that Clarkson remains a great singer to this day, but it's not like the production or compositions flattered her as much as they could, and the second you compare this to what she was doing in the mid-2000s... well, one of the phrases I used was 'sell-out', but in truth any sort of greater unique artistic ideal went out the window after My December underperformed ten years ago.

And you know, I got a lot of crap for those statements. I stand by them, but I also think something was missed: namely, when Kelly Clarkson gets good material she's a tremendous pop singer. I put her in a similar category to Demi Lovato in that they're both singers with huge voices that sound better in rock than R&B or soul or gospel, but if the pop song is great I'll take it, as I did when her cover of 'It's Quiet Uptown' from The Hamilton Mixtape made my year-end list of the best songs of 2016! But I was genuinely worried about Meaning Of Life, not just because she had changed labels but also because if 'Love So Soft' was representative of the artistic pivot she was trying, it was not one that remotely flattered her voice! But my Patrons wanted me to review this, and while there were a few returning producers overall she looked like she had a new team - even despite having only four writing credits on a fourteen song album, but whatever. So how is Meaning Of Life?

Honestly, I went into this with zero expectations - and coming out of several listens, I think that's the most appropriate way to listen to Meaning Of Life, because you're either going to like Kelly Clarkson's stylistic 'pivot' or you're not going to care - and unfortunately I land in the latter category. And again, just like Piece By Piece this isn't precisely a bad record, but it certainly feels pretty forgettable and anonymous, an album on a new label that's trying to establish Kelly Clarkson's new direction and yet can't quite stick the landing.

And the frustrating thing is that, again, this isn't a problem with Kelly Clarkson - at least not directly. She's not exactly a subtle vocalist, but at least theoretically you could see her somewhat compatible with tones that tilt more towards blue-eyed soul or gospel - hell, the groundwork for that was laid on Piece By Piece, it's not even that much of a pivot, and her backing singers are certainly putting in overtime. And it's not like there isn't precedent for it in mainstream pop right now - hell, look at that last Pink record - so why doesn't it seem to work? Well, part of it definitely comes through in her delivery - Pink always had a smoky sense of groove and natural charisma that gave her a bit of flexibility when her songs trended towards soul or R&B, something Kelly Clarkson and Demi Lovato have both struggled with, just a little too stiff and theatrical.

Granted, if you're looking for the larger reason why Kelly Clarkson can struggle, I'd argue it comes more in the production. And let's put aside the vocal production for a second - there's no real consistency across this record and the amount of space she gets or pitch-shifted vocal filters that get tacked on songs like 'Heat', with by far the worst case the pointless shifting added to 'Go High', but that's peripheral to the main issue. And it really becomes pretty simple: the more upbeat songs just do not have a consistent sense of groove or swing to them, and when you factor in a real lack of driving instrumental melody, she and her backing singers are stuck trying to add momentum to songs actively resisting it. Take the hook of 'Love So Soft' - a flat, leaden block of bass beneath her that slams the track into a brick wall and can't provide any groove to counterbalance her voice, so she winds up reverting to a staccato delivery that makes it worse - and that's before you get the fake horns! We'll get back to that in a second - the horn fidelity is really all over the map on this record, especially as a similar momentum issue happens for the trap-inspired 'Didn't I', but at least the horns sound fuller - but the lacking of underlying melody becomes an issue for songs like 'Heat', because for all the vocal lines, the guitars barely compliment the thrumming bass and handclap, and it winds up not feeling memorable. Or, conversely, you get a song like the title track with the guitar sounds so flat and badly tuned you almost wish it wasn't there. Again, it's evidence of a focus on percussion texture over actual melodic tone, which shows up again with the guitars and organ on 'Move You' that have no real body until the strings swell up. Or go to 'Whole Lotta Woman', which is probably the closest this record gets to vintage soul with the firmer bass and horns section... so why in the Nine Hells was a trap hi-hat skitter added to the hook? Now that's not saying there aren't cases where the groove can materialize, from the fidgety, bass-driven 'Medicine' to the ghostly plucked strings of 'Would You Call That Love' that is only a few layers of reverb from being a Lykke Li b-side - no surprise, given that Greg Kurstin produced it - and the country soul touches of 'Slow Dance' definitely feels like more comfortable territory, even if you wish that organ would actually have a little more body.

But even in most of these cases, we now have to go to the writing and lyrics... and look, as I said at the beginning Kelly Clarkson didn't write the majority of these songs, and as someone who remembers her more cutting and potent style, it can't help but feel underwhelming going through a lot of these tunes. For one, whoever told her the stuttering on notes for songs like the title track, 'Didn't I', and 'I Don't Think About You' was flattering or helped the songs' flows should be fired, and for another, if you're trying to emphasize how you're not thinking about some guy, maybe you should have multiple songs written about him on this record, with 'Medicine' being the other! And that's the thing, you can tell that however these guys enter the picture, they probably occupy more headspace for her than she needs, especially as they all seem to be keeping her somewhat at arm's length on songs like 'Cruel' or 'Don't You Pretend' or the post-breakup of 'Would You Call That Love'. And if these songs came with a layer of greater introspection or more of a focus on detail that would be one thing, but strangely many of them feel as barren as the melodies on this record, lacking colour or going over the top to disguise how thin they ultimately feel? There are a few exceptions: 'I Don't Think About You' is a little more revealing than perhaps planned in how she says the bad relationship was necessary to become stronger - or to fill in something for the song; and the acknowledgement that she's not going to do anything beyond teach this guy to slow dance on, well, 'Slow Dance' is fine enough, even if again it can feel a tad distant. And 'Move You' has an interesting core in the idea of finding the right music to inspire the same emotion as she's pulled to feel, and outside of 'Whole Lotta Woman' - which plays right up to the line of parody in a Texas-fried reinterpretation of 'All About That Bass' - it has the most lyrical detail. But for the rest of the record... there's more thin platitudes and cliches that with this presentation feel increasingly impersonal.

But at the same time... look, unlike someone like Demi Lovato, I know that Kelly Clarkson is never going back to pop rock, that was years ago. But if she's going to go for soul and pick up production with little groove and inconsistent quality, with songwriting to match, it's hard for me to get interested in a new Kelly Clarkson record. Now I know for some diehard fans they won't care, and with her on a new label with a 'new' sound they'll be thrilled, but the execution feels haphazard and as someone who really can like soul when it's well-crafted, this feels pretty insubstantial. For me it's a 5/10, but if you actually liked 'Love So Soft', you might have more luck with this. In the mean time... no, unless she gets better material, Kelly Clarkson just isn't gripping me much anymore, and I'm genuinely not thinking about her. Sorry.

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