“I’m real good at forgivin’, but my heart can’t forget,” proclaims Kelly Clarkson on her highly anticipated new studio album. It’s an unspoken fact in pop culture that musicians, specifically female ones, who record new albums following the dissolution of a marriage or significant personal relationships will be some of their most personal and impactful work. That can often create a lot of pressure, as Clarkson attests in her new LP Chemistry, which in many ways is a mosaic of her past selves molded into the woman she is today.
With the exception of a second holiday album, it’s been nearly six years since we last heard from Clarkson musically. She’s been otherwise engaged with television appearances as a coach on The Voice and on her daytime talk show, where she’s essentially the musical guest on every episode.
When her marriage to Brandon Blackstock ended in 2021, it didn’t take long for pop music enthusiasts to start hyping up her impending divorce album, which, for an artist like Clarkson who has made her name in pop on anthemic hits like “Since U Been Gone”, “Behind These Hazel Eyes”, or “Already Gone”, would certainly be much to live up to. The result, Chemistry, is a refined reintroduction to Clarkson as an entertainer rather than just the world’s first winner of American Idol.
When Clarkson signed a new record deal with Atlantic for her last studio album, Meaning of Life, it marked a transition into R&B influences for the singer, experimentation that her previous recording contract with the Idol franchise did not really allow. Meaning of Life was immediately hailed as Clarkson’s magnum opus and the start of a new era where Clarkson could start spreading her wings musically. Instead, she focused more on becoming a pop culture personality, with music taking a backseat. Chemistry reflects this hiatus and her musical freedom, even if it’s a bit tamer genre-wise than Meaning of Life.
Indeed, the previously released singles from the record, “Mine”, “Me”, and “Favorite Kind of High”, conjured more of an unfiltered version of the American Idol era of Clarkson rather than the new, empowered persona fans were expecting. But while these singles would set the pace for the album, Chemistry’s strongest offerings appear elsewhere on the track listing.
“High Road”, for instance, is the anthemic underdog track that longtime listeners will revel in, as Clarkson acknowledges how she, like most women, was raised to always cover their fears, be brave, put others’ needs ahead of their own, and to take the metaphorical high road. “I break my back on the things other people say / I’m gettin’ tired always tryin’ to do my best / When I don’t feel it.” In this sense, Chemistry‘s central theme is not necessarily divorce and starting a new life but coming to terms with the burden of existence in a hetero-patriarchal culture.
Other highlights from Chemistry include “Lighthouse” and “Rock Hudson”, which hammer home the end of a romance, how two people can drift apart until there’s nothing left between them. Like Adele, Clarkson can create music that resonates with listeners of all ages and backgrounds, who might not personally relate to going through a divorce, but rather the incurable human condition. While it might not be her most eclectic work, Chemistry grapples with this condition in the most human ways.