'My December': Kelly Clarkson, Striking Out On Her Own

Would-be songwriter Kelly Clarkson's new album is a painful one-note epistle on the heartbreak of breakup. Alanis Morissette did it better.
Would-be songwriter Kelly Clarkson's new album is a painful one-note epistle on the heartbreak of breakup. Alanis Morissette did it better. (By Richard Drew -- Associated Press)
By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 26, 2007

That screechy sound you're hearing right now? It's the driver of Kelly Clarkson's pop-star bandwagon slamming on the brakes, attempting to avoid a spectacular wreck. Not an easy thing to do, given that the American Idol's bandwagon is hurtling along without wheels -- all of which have come flying off in recent months.

First came Clarkson's feud with her label chief, Clive Davis, over the direction of her new album, "My December." Davis wanted the Texas balladeer to work, as before, with hired hitmakers on polished, radio-friendly songs; Clarkson opted instead to record a highly personal breakup album, showcasing her own songwriting on darker, edgier rock-oriented fare.

So far, Davis looks like the sage: "My December's" bitter lead single, "Never Again," stalled on the charts, most likely because the song is lacking anything like a memorable melody.

Then, just this month, Clarkson canceled her summer tour, citing lousy ticket sales. She also fired her manager. Given that Clarkson is a lonely, heartbroken gal these days (assuming "My December's" anguished confessionals are as real as advertised, anyway), one wonders who will help her through these tough times. Surely not all of the fans she has acquired over the past five years are going to stick with her during her blue period, as the material simply isn't strong or accessible enough.

Clarkson's previous album, "Breakaway," was a Grammy-winning smash that finished as the third best-selling title of 2005, thanks to its massive hits. Best among them was the sugary pop-rock single, "Since U Been Gone," crafted by the Swedish songwriter Dr. Luke. The song had a hook to kill, and Clarkson hit a home run with her vocal.

But now, Dr. Luke is out as Clarkson has decided, at 25, to prove herself as a serious artiste who can write her own material, thank you very much. Never mind that she wound up working with several co-writers, or that she also teamed up with a successful veteran producer in David Kahne: "My December" is Clarkson's Big Artistic Statement, and hers alone. And that statement can more or less be summed up like so: I hate life since we broke up -- and, gee, isn't Alanis Morissette great!?

Indeed, the angsty and intense scorned-girl rock of "My December" comes across like a lesser version of Morissette's music circa "Jagged Little Pill" (with shades of Pat Benatar, too). It's confused and angry and anguished, featuring crunchy power chords, crashing drums, a little bit of distortion and more than a few digital studio tricks. The therapeutic, highly produced sound of cathartic release, in other words.

"I hope the ring you gave to her turns her finger green," Clarkson hisses on "Never Again." "I hope when you're in bed with her you think of me."

On "Haunted," she's back to moping: "I'm still stuck in this moment of wanting you here."

Then again: "It's over, / It's over, / It's over !" she declares on "Don't Waste Your Time."

The songs might work better if not for the fact that, as a writer, Clarkson doesn't seem to have a particularly strong sense of melody. Most of these songs don't suit her voice particularly well, and they tend to drone on, too, with a few exceptions: "Be Still," a gentle, almost jazzy lullaby whose lyrical phrasing echoes Edie Brickell, of all people; "Yeah," a sinewy soul song sassed up with R&B horns; and the quiet, contemplative "Irvine," on which Clarkson sings directly to God over an acoustic guitar.

Otherwise: Eh.

Clarkson sounds shrill throughout "My December," which is surprising, given just how gorgeous her voice can be. Consider her stirring version of "Up to the Mountain," on which she lays a soaring, emotion-drenched vocal over churchy piano and Jeff Beck's bluesy guitar licks. Written by Patty Griffin and performed by Clarkson this year on "American Idol," the song is a stunner, falling squarely in the young singer's sweet spot.

Unfortunately, while the live performance was released as a charity single, it's not included on "My December."

It's admirable -- laudable, even -- that Clarkson wanted to take control of her artistry, but she's a much better singer than songwriter. No shame in that, but maybe the next time she wants to express herself, in her own words, she might consider blogging about her feelings.

DOWNLOAD THESE: "Irvine," "Yeah," "Be Still"

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