Clarkson Pops Back From Cold 'December'
By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Someday, some business savant ought to do a case study on pop star Kelly Clarkson and the decisions that she and her handlers have made during the "American Idol" winner's recording career. The report would probably boil down to something like this: accessibility, melody, spunk, sharply crafted power pop and Swedish collaborators -- good. Clarkson moping around, alone, with a lyric book and her own tuneless hard-rock tendencies -- bad.
The Texas power balladeer's occasionally thrilling new release, "All I Ever Wanted," is one of those rare pop albums that should resonate with the mainstream while also generating critical heat. That's actually nothing new for Clarkson, whose second album, "Breakaway," was a Grammy-winning smash that finished as the third best-selling title of 2005, thanks to a string of massive hits. Chief among them: "Since U Been Gone," a sugary blast of pop-rock. The single was voted as one of the year's five best in the Village Voice's annual Pazz & Jop critics' poll.
But between then and now, Clarkson essentially bottomed out; her 2007 album, "My December," was a dreary, melody-deficient personal statement that was a critical and commercial disappointment. That came as no surprise to the singer's legendary label chief, Clive Davis, who had wanted Clarkson to work with hired hitmakers -- notably, Dr. Luke and Max Martin, the Swedes behind "Since U Been Gone" -- on polished, radio-friendly power pop. Clarkson opted instead to record a highly personal breakup album, showcasing her own songwriting on darker and decidedly rock-oriented fare.
She also canceled her summer tour, citing lousy ticket sales, and fired her manager. Clarkson has since said that the manager wanted her to be the world's biggest pop star, a role she didn't want. But now, here comes Clarkson, sounding like a contender for the title of world's biggest pop star again.
Her new album's lead single, "My Life Would Suck Without You" -- for which Clarkson reunited with the kings of catchiness, Dr. Luke and Max Martin -- is a nearly perfect example of slick, carefully crafted 21st-century pop. The melody is Krazy Glue-sticky, the production super-compressed, the arrangement airtight.
Although the song is about a guy returning to Clarkson with an apology, its message of rapprochement could apply to the singer's relationship with the pop fans who walked away during the blue period of "My December." The new song, which echoes "Since U Been Gone," is already a smash, having sold more than a million downloads; it also set a record for the largest jump on the Billboard Hot 100 in the chart's history, zooming from No. 97 to No. 1 in a week.
A big team fills the credits of "All I Ever Wanted," with more than 20 songwriters and producers working on the album's 14 songs. But the padding is forgivable, because for every misfire (the treacly "Save You," which suggests Clarkson fronting Coldplay; "Whyyawannabringmedown," which sounds like a Courtney Love-Toni Basil collaboration), there are multiple gems.
Standout "I Want You" is a glorious blast of girl-group pop that finds Clarkson inexplicably swooning over a hot-tempered, noncommunicative guy -- "such a mess with an attitude," she sings. "Cry" and "If No One Will Listen" are big, bereft tear-jerkers, a Clarkson specialty. "Don't Let Me Stop You" is another Clarkson staple: the scorned girl's sneering kiss-off.
The title track is a swinging dance-rocker-cum-power ballad about Clarkson's conflicted feelings: "All I ever wanted / Was a simple way to get over you," she howls on the chorus. And then, descending dejectedly: "All I ever wanted / Was you."
And then, there is "I Do Not Hook Up," a sugary pop-rocker with high nutritional value: The anthemic song is about spurning a guy's advances, with Clarkson declaring, " 'Cause the more that you try / The harder I'll fight / To say goodnight."
A sort of precursor to Taylor Swift's "Should've Said No," it's a sharp, catchy song aimed squarely at young female pop fans. It's also a surprise, given its source: "I Do Not Hook Up" was co-written by Katy Perry, the girl-kissing, banana-riding, bustier-favoring pop tart.
Superficially, the libidinous Perry and the relatively wholesome Clarkson seem like an odd pop pairing. But the partnership produces another success in "Long Shot," the album's other track Perry co-wrote, on which Clarkson sings, almost desperately, of trying to make a flawed relationship work. Kind of like Clarkson's relationship with her handlers, come to think of it.
Kindred spirits: Pat Benatar, Ashlee Simpson, Pink
Reality TV has a way of making us feel that we know its contestants, and "American Idol" is no different. In 2002, Kelly Clarkson warmed hearts with her big smile and down-to-earth personality. That girl-next-door charm, combined with her booming voice, translates nicely into feisty pop songs about boy troubles.
On her fourth album, "All I Ever Wanted," she tackles several such tunes. "My Life Would Suck Without You" carries a simple sentiment with a catchy hook. And her self-assured "I Do Not Hook Up" is an empowering celebration of chastity.
The only trouble with "Wanted" is that there just aren't enough of those sugary pop songs. Slower ballads, such as "Save You," sound generic, and the faux-punk "Whyyawannabringmedown" feels more like the work of an artist trying to find her way than one with three other albums under her belt.
Clarkson really finds her sweet spot, though, on the Katy Perry-penned "Long Shot," which carries a sense of urgency and desperation. The song's simple, relatable sentiment ("If I say forget it, I know that I'll regret it") and her sassier-than-usual vocals are almost enough to make you forget the album's missteps.
-- Catherine P. Lewis (October 9, 2009)