Monday, October 24, 2011

Album Review: Kelly Clarkson - Stronger (3.5/5)

With Stronger, Kelly Clarkson continues her streak of consistency with her work--it follows up to fourth album All I Ever Wanted which restored Clarkson's presence in the charts (landing her second #1 with bubbly lead single "My Life Would Suck Without You") which was tarnished by the misfire of her third album My December, which attempted to push Clarkson into darker, more edgier rock territories but ultimately was dismissed as critical and more importantly commercial failure--failing to land any significant hit. Personally, there were some tracks on that album that deserved more attention and didn't deserve to be overlooked--such as the emotional, progressive rock/pop of "Sober." However, in all, whether venturing out of the mainstream or back into it--there has always been a distinctive blend of pop/rock in Clarkson's music that has held up a noticeable sense of consistency, which is only extended with this new album.

Stronger cultivates effectively everything that makes Clarkson's take on rock/pop sound so great--huge vocal, big choruses with a hint of lyrical bitterness--which is exactly how feisty lead single "Mr. Know It All" kicks off the album--It's a great mid-tempo, utilising the usual pop/rock ingredients--piano chords underpinning a clattering of drum patterns and strings as Clarkson desperately asserts that "you don't know a thing about (her)." It's not necessarily my favorite of her album openers--nothing beats the vengeful rock of "Never Again" or the more soft uplifting pop of "Breakaway," but it's still great. However, it's still this consistent formula that seems to emerge as tired and uninteresting as the album goes on.

There is a noticeable lack of star-studded producers on here. The last album was littered with production with the likes of Max Martin ("My Life Would Suck Without You") Ryan Tedder ("Already Gone," "Save You," and "If I Can't Have You") Claude Kelly ("Don't Let Me Stop You") and even Katy Perry ("I Do Not Hook Up"). On here, Clarkson has a much prominent production presence--producing "You Love Me" featuring that classic pop/rock sound; with plucky guitar-strings which evaporate into the full throttle vocally powered chorus, where more intense (give or take) electronic guitars, drums come into play. "Standing In Front You" is its counterpart--capitalising on subtlety rather than a big throttling chorus; disquieting guitars, melancholic drums and a hollowing atmosphere.

"Honestly" is a beautifully haunting, downbeat number--very blunt in its approach to a blackening approach to rock. The chorus goes instrumental with its darkening instruments mudding over the eventual desperate burst of "you can tell me, you can tell me..." The lyric: "All I see are beautiful lies," seems to sum up the strangely unyielding atompsherics here, something sinister juxtaposed against something delicate and alluring, which reveals itself after the penetrating chorus in a brief moment of disquiet with piano keys and vocal. Similar is "Dark Side," a moody but sweet melodic piece backed by synths and a prominent guitar pattern which comes to the forefront on the hulking chorus.

There's more bitterness that lies in "Einstein" a clattering production with an over cutting screeching electronic guitar, however it still adhere's to a slightly more urban-pop production. She doesn't actually acknowledge Albert Enstein the genius, but does repeat the lyric: "Dumb plus Dumb equals You," which quite frankly mocks both her ex-lover and Einstein--Tsk Tsk Kelly. "I Forgive You," quickly sheds any urban sensibilities, going full-throttle pop/rock, not particularly covering any new ground--in fact, sounds like re-tread of "You Love Me." Understandably, there's only so much you can do with with rock/pop--but how do you erase that element of repetitiveness? Following track, "Hello" pretty much cuts from the same vein. It's not bad, but not necessarily a highlight.

The albums picks up quite a bit on the epic, intense "The War Is Over," which reminds me a little of "Behind These Hazel Eyes." It's progressive in its intensive, dramatic build up to the high-power chorus. It's not without its share of bitterness and earthy lows that seems to regularly succumb to Clarkson. "Let Me Down" and "You Can't Win" are engaging slice of pop/rock, heavy guitar chords, intense drums, huge vocal--very ardent in their production, but not particularly different or (unfortunately) interesting. In quite a similar vein to "If No One Will Listen" from the last album, the closing track on here is "Breaking Your Own Heart" a heartfelt ballad backed primarily by an acoustic guitar, strings and Clarkson's emotion vocal. Clarkson has a nack of hitting the right notes with her closing numbers--which rightfully always tend to be ballads--stemming from the huge vocal-laden ballad of "Anytime" and "Beautiful Disaster" to the wonderfully bitter, blunt and relatively depressing balladry of "Irvine."

Stronger is a decent album--it united the elements of pop and rock that Clarkson does so well and has been doing so well since her 2004 blockbuster Brekaway, landing a handful of great tracks, however at the same time I am beginning to grow increasingly tired of it. There is a sensitve case of "if it's not broke don't fix it," but what if it becomes boring? There's nothing particuarly wrong with the sky, but looking at it for ages is rather boring, however the night sky is a nice change up (I tried hard to look for a better analogy). I would like her to see tackling something a little different for the next album as I do feel things can get a little stale and ultimately uninteresting.

Best: The War Is Over, Mr. Know It All, Honestly, Dark Side, Standing Right In Front of You, Breaking Your Own Heart

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