With her latest, Kelly Clarkson proves that what doesn't kill her (and that voice) only makes her (and that voice) stronger.
How do you not root for Kelly Clarkson at this point? It's been nearly 13 years since she won the first season of American Idol and outside of Carrie Underwood, you can make an awfully strong argument that there isn't a single other artist to come from that series who has enjoyed more success in the mainstream than she has. It didn't come easy, of course. "She's a one-hit wonder," some proclaimed after "Miss Independent" ruled the airwaves. "All she did was win a TV karaoke contest," others snarked.
Yet here we stand, seven albums and at least a dozen bonafide pop hits later, with Piece By Piece, another set of made-for-radio anthems that's already produced another Top 40 single, the undeniably unavoidable "Heartbeat Song". The oddity of Clarkson's career, to some degree at least, is that each time she goes away for a couple years, you kind of wonder if she'll be back. Case in point: Think back to your initial reaction to "Mr. Know It All" off 2011's Stronger. "No shit," you probably thought when you found out that was her voice. "She's got another song?"
Kind of like how you felt when you heard "My Life Would Suck Without You". Or "Never Again". Or "Since U Been Gone". It's not fair, really. Of all the female pop stars in today's mainstream, Clarkson comes off as Adele's slightly cooler auntie, a woman who has a voice for the ages and just the right amount of self-awareness to stay relevant. Lady Gaga is often too pretentious. Beyonce occasionally feels like too much of a goddess. Pink is the resident pissed off wise-ass. And Taylor Swift is too … well, Taylor Swift-ish.
But Clarkson? She's just an honest pop star with whom you probably wouldn't mind grabbing a beer and heading to the ballgame. And each time she's up to bat on Piece By Piece, she gets on base, sometimes even knocking it out of the park. Check "Someone", which serves as the best illustration of that Clarksonian candor we've grown to love. "So, this is my apology / For saying all those shitty things / I wish I didn't really mean / I'm sorry I'm not sorry," she asserts as an opening monologue over spacey, sparse sounds and you're hooked. Sure, the thing never explodes the way you hope it would, but with each word and each note, the singer holds court in a way that is equally mesmerizing and addicting. Good luck trying to not pay attention to her, despite some casual over-production, even by today's standards.
Actually, such command is precisely why she's been able to achieve longevity in this increasingly fickle zeitgeist. She can sing. Like, really. She can sing. So what if she only gets three writing credits here? If you're blessed with that type of powerful, gritty, demanding, rich voice of of hers, all you really need to ever do is show up and sing. And sing she does, going toe-to-toe with John Legend on "Run Run Run". Tailor-made for adult contemporary radio and thousands of old Grey's Anatomy episodes, the song is a gloriously polished victory of voice, the two fitting into each other's strengths with both ease and vigor. For all the duets she had to do during her Idol days, this one makes you wonder why she doesn't take that approach a step further and cut a record filled with guests.
Perhaps it's because she thrives so well on her own. The title track here, which she co-wrote, is one of the most biting songs of her career (and this includes All I Ever Wanted's excellent "Don't Let Me Stop You"). Pushed forward by a repeating snare drum pattern that marches as well as it battles, Clarkson will break your heart with a line like, "I traveled 1,500 miles to see you / Begged you to want me, but you didn't want to." The song, one of the record's best, works for the same reason Kelly Clarkson, as a performer, works: You believe her. By the time she gets around to explaining how loyal her daughter's father promises to treat their child as the track winds down and you feel the desperation creep up your spine as she insists, "he'll love her," you're ready for that beer you always thought you could share. It'll get you every time.
Still, to be fair, some spots are iffy. "Take You High" is a clear play on the current EDM boom that works if you listen to it enough, despite its first impression's intentions being questionable. "Dance With Me" kind of feels like Pink's "Blow Me (One Last Kiss)" with its predecessor's attitude turned down and the Tom Jones-meets-Cher disco turned up. "I Had a Dream", the most interesting song, has all the makings of a great Kelly Clarkson recording -- pseudo rap with a killer cadence that takes less than no prisoners with delivery and lyricism -- but her second verse falls flat in a weird way. Like, did you really have to say, "spreading your legs instead of using your words" as a shot at some wannabe pop star? You're better than that, Miss Independent.
For proof, have a listen to the deluxe edition's "Bad Reputation", which amounts to the best song Joss Stone hasn't written in years, soulful horns, slippery groove and all. It's nothing less than great, the singer's occasional flirtation with R&B coming to complete fruition better than it ever has before. Album-ender "Good Goes The Bye" also succeeds, its '80s synth-heavy backbone creating atmosphere and intrigue. She's at her best when she's either pissed off or hurt, and part of the singer's brilliance is knowing when to play down that rich voice of hers for effect. It works masterfully here, and it puts a fitting bow on yet another solid and should-be-hit-filled album.
The great thing about it? At this point, it doesn't really matter if those hits ever break through (outside of "Heartbeat Song", of course). Because Piece by Piece showcases a brand new Kelly Clarkson all the while staying true to what makes her an artist that continually finds ways churn out really good pop records. Remember: She's a mother now. She's a wife, too. She's fully formed. She has more perspective on life than she has ever shown before. With this set, she applies those lessons and that knowledge in a way that makes her appear fresh -- yet again. If what doesn't kill her makes her stronger, and these are the pieces by which she continues to call upon in order to thrive as an artist… well, long live Kelly Clarkson.
And long live that voice.