For someone who owes her career to a starmaking TV show, Kelly Clarkson has earned an awful lot of goodwill.
American Idol, of course, is devoted to creating an automaton, a Johnny Bravo-type who fits the jacket. But Clarkson, the show’s first winner, never really played by their rules. She churned out massive hits, of course, but she also delighted us with category-defying records that managed to showcase her tremendous ability to jump genres, to placate her label while retaining her “I do what I want” individualism. To put it another way, we all like her. She can make pop for our moms, but it’s the quirky, harder, darker stuff in her catalog that keeps her from embodying the creepy Idol brand. There are an awful lot of punks and headbangers, for example, who keep “Since U Been Gone” in constant rotation on their iPhones, and there’s not a soul alive who doesn’t wanna jump around when “I Do Not Hook Up” or the glorious “My Life Would Suck Without You” light up the room.
So if there’s anyone who can make a Christmas record with genuine mass appeal, it’s Clarkson. And while Wrapped in Red pretty much plays it safe, she and her producers have made a lot of crafty choices here; it’s no instant classic, but it’s shimmery and accessible enough to find its way onto your holiday playlist and stay there for quite some time.
Clarkson sets some lofty expectations right off the bat. The first two cuts, “Wrapped in Red” and “Underneath the Tree”, are unabashedly romantic and drenched in Phil Spector-style production, complete with big drums, tambourines, and castanets. They’re also pretty damned good; Clarkson shoots for musical theatre drama and scores. Her everygirl voice is way out front, and we hear every breath and sigh — a tactic that makes her sound both vulnerable and pop-star assured. “Underneath” is especially shameless in its Spectorisms, with its honking baritone saxes, church bells, and bits of Wall-of-Sound reverb, but it’s got a great shot at entering the seasonal zeitgeist. It could unseat “All I Want for Christmas Is You” as a shopping mall and holiday party favorite. Let’s just hope Clarkson leaves Justin Bieber out of her video.
Next up is “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, and Kelly gives it the Disney treatment, allowing orchestral strings and flourishes to back her warm vocal (she goes with the revisionist “hang a shining star” lyric – none of this mopey “we’ll have to muddle through somehow” crap on her album). It casts a nice December spell, but it gets a little distracting when she goes for broke in the final verse, indulging in crazy-high soul-girl inversions. Get used to it – it’s a tactic she’ll return to throughout Wrapped in Red, for better or worse.
But then come a few stumbles. Heavily processed drums and plastic guitars drag down “Run Run Rudolph”. Here was a great excuse to rock out, but even some thoughtful horns can’t keep it from sounding like tired karaoke. Clarkson tries to liven up a staid arrangement of “Please Come Home for Christmas” with an overly sincere, soulful delivery, but her high-octave belting comes off as show-offy, even if it’ll probably slay ‘em in concert. (It still beats Don Henley’s grumpy take of the song.) And why she follows that with “Every Christmas”, another sad-sack 6/8 ballad, is anyone’s guess, especially since her lineup of Christmas clichés (“under the mistletoe / let it snow / come on home / every Christmas I’ll wait”) is less than inspired. It still sounds nice, of course — some gospelly background singers and beautifully balanced horns add nuance — but the formula starts to get stale, and we hope she can mix it up a bit in the second half.
Fortunately, she does, going country with “Blue Christmas” and lounge with “Baby It’s Cold Outside”. “Blue” is simple and understated, if awfully professional, but “Baby” is interesting. Ronnie Dunn of Brooks & Dunn plays the Casanova part, but Clarkson is the one way out front, alternately mewling and belting, hitting some alarmingly high notes over Dunn’s gentle country crooning and the Dean Martin arrangement. The effect is odd, even jarring at first, but she effectively takes control of the song and her own destiny, allowing her confident delivery to turn the recent (and rather silly) kerfuffle regarding the coercive lyrics on its head. It’s not exactly subversive, but it’s fun.
The rest of the set is mostly solid, if disappointingly conservative. There’s really only one risk here, and that’s her cover of Imogen Heap’s “Just for Now”. It’s a fantastic song, mature and self-aware, and Clarkson nails it, but the adult-alternative sound and complex, dysfunctional-family tale may be off-putting to those lulled by the abundance of fireside romance that precedes it. But those folks should like the charming “Winter Dreams (Brandon’s Song)”, which begins suspiciously like Grizzly Bear’s “Two Weeks” but blossoms into a heartfelt, joyful ode to holiday love (you can picture the snowflakes on Clarkson’s eyelashes as she sings). The other remaining original, the tongue-in-cheek “4 Carats”, attempts to update “Santa Baby”, but Kelly just sounds too wholesome to effectively play a gold digger. It’s got a nicely menacing guitar lick and a bouncy melody, but Eartha Kitt can RIP easy.
A torchy, piano-only “White Christmas”, an urgent “My Favorite Things”, and a Patsy Cline-homage “Silent Night” finish the set. Clarkson’s right at home on the first two; she’s as assured as ever, sophisticated and tender, even if her last-verse stratospheric belting continues to test your tolerance. “Silent Night” adds Trisha Yearwood and Reba McEntire into the mix, and while it’s nice to hear the accents fly and the emoting kept under control, they don’t distinguish themselves from the 18,000 pop versions of “Silent Night” already in the world.
But that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with keeping the boat steady now and then; everyone in the family will surely hear something they like while trimming the tree, and that’s rather the point. Maybe Clarkson’s a bit too eager to prove she can still wail out the money notes, and maybe the dearth of edge will disappoint those of us who love “Addicted” and “Hole”. But Wrapped in Red doesn’t need edge; it’s just dynamic and varied enough to be satisfying, and it’s light-years better than any of the whitewashed Christmas crap Simon Cowell has inflicted on the world. If Kelly Clarkson’s next album is as mainstream, we’ll have cause to worry; until then, light up a fire, snuggle with your loved one, and be grateful for the one good gift American Idol gave us.
Note: There are two additional tracks on the Deluxe Edition, but you’re fine without ‘em; one’s an oversung “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” with a nice flugelhorn solo, the other’s a dark, but perversely short “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” Save your money.