The first American Idol winner, Kelly Clarkson, lands this week with her fifth studio album, Stronger. With over 10 million albums sold within the U.S., Clarkson is no stranger to churning out rock-infused pop hits. As the followup to 2009′s All I Ever Wanted, Stronger has the similar inflection of soaring anthemic melodies and sugary beats and cliches, but ushers in a new era for her. Clarkson may not have delivered on the level of her 2007 album My December, but she does pepper in enough angst and betrayal to make Stronger a solid and enjoyable ride.
The lead single, “Mr. Know It All,” is a one-two punch at the media (much like Britney Spears’ Femme Fatale) and was written by craftsmiths Brian Seals, Ester Dean, Brett James, and Dante Jones. From the liquidy rhythmic line to Clarkson’s unashamed phrasing, “All” is all you could ever want in a modern pop song. At first listen, you might suspect it is just another stab at the male counterpart, but the accompanying video lets you in on a secret; it’s not about a man at all, but every person who has ever done the “Since U Been Gone” singer wrong. Lyrically, “All” is just a cheap imitation of the best Clarkson tunes, but it is her charm, sass, and vocal prowess that make this song a worthy album cut.
“What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger),” the title track, was penned by Jorgen Elofsson, Ali Tamposi, David Gamson, and Greg Kurstin. Pulsing with the veins of a dance club beat, “Stronger” melts with processed synths and teases the listener to pump those fists. Seemingly taking a page from a Lady Gaga-infected number, Clarkson highlights her growth into the now. Back in 2002, very little mainstream music was as club ready as it is post-Gaga and Nicki Minaj. Out of all the tracks, “What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger)” features the best and trendiest vocals. “What doesn’t kill you makes a fighter,” the pop princess belts on the chorus. Downside? The production is chewy, at moments, and thickly obscures an otherwise superb track.
“Dark Side,” a song written by Busbee and Alex G, takes Stronger and banks a hard left. With a xylophone tinkling out a lullaby-like intro, Clarkson takes a creative adventure into extraterrestrial territory that is an oddly soothing and intriguing fit for her voice. You did not ask for the Twilight Zone, but somehow with an electrically tender arrangement, Clarkson transports you there. “Dark Side,” a crafty pop hook with Owl City influence that does not let up on skeletal drums, charts new territory for the Idol without venturing too far from the working formula.
“Could you love somebody like that?” Clarkson pleads in the first line of “Honestly.” As a song written by Tom Shapiro, Robert Marvin, and Catt Gravitt, it is a painstakingly vulnerable entry into a novel of heartache. Many of Clarkson’s previous ballad efforts had a pulled-back-over-the-teeth grit that permeated her delivery. On “Honestly,” there is an eerie uneasiness and pleading texture in Clarkson’s vocals that spirals out of control on the chorus. Built around sharp and breathy chords, “Honestly,” an undoubtedly gut-wrenching testimony, strikes fire within her to scream out “If you’re hating me, do it honestly.”
The first Clarkson-penned track to appear on Stronger turns out to be “You Love Me,” which was written with Josh Abraham and Oliver Goldstein.”You just opened my eyes while breaking my heart,” she confesses. Wrapping her vocals around a manufactured sound, Clarkson carves out raw emotion, as she does on most tracks on this set. However, with “You Love Me,” her convictions are steely and forceful. The echo-like quality and techno demeanor molds her scorn into a blown out anthem. “Thick skin, soft touch, heart of gold but it’s n-n-n-not enough,” she chants, clutching her arsenal of frustration and cranking out a poignant vocal.
A simple arithmetic class could easily have taught you what Clarkson voices on “Einstein,” written by her, Toby Gad, Bridget Kelly, and James Fauntleroy. While the lyrics have been mechanically chopped together, Clarkson drips with passion and gusto, and the hook on the chorus is clever. A rock edge to the instrumentation conceals an extra layer to peel back when listening to a track that could easily become stale with time, allowing the listener to grip tightly to each syllable Clarkson belts. Remember “dumb+dumb=you.”
Written with Aben Eubanks, “Standing in Front of You” is a breezy stirring of enchanted love and longing. Fueled by a steady galloping drum and strings, Clarkson is able take a relinquishing step back and reassert herself in a different way. With a nuanced lilt in her voice, “You” forks and curves, and at the end she reveals that she’ll be “standing in front of you.” Unlike on other ballads, Clarkson does not power through the climax, as she tends to do. Instead, she lays the foundation on the first verse and calculates her next steps to build a beautiful story.
A charging bull wouldn’t stop the sawing synths on “I Forgive You,” written by Rodney Jerkins, Andre Lindal, and Lauren Christy. On a self-proclaiming identification track, Clarkson plunges into youthful exuberance about a story of two kids “trying to figure out how to live.” Forgiveness, a trait often replaced in pop jams by revenge, stems from years of experience, and Clarkson has plenty to shed on “Forgive.” Chalking up wreckless behavior to not being old enough to know better, the tune lays “no shame, no blame” on the contagious lyrics and Clarkson’s ability to make everything out of nothing. A definite steamy summer track, “Forgive” benefits from busting speakers and windows.
“Fun” and “cool” are terms that could be used to describe “Hello,” another Clarkson cowrite with Abraham, Goldstein, and Bonnie McKee. With a clap-along and guitar-led intro, Clarkson’s “Hello” is a light hearted inquiry that is heavy on the soda pop. Bubbling and brimming in under three minutes, “Hello” is reminiscent of All I Ever Wanted, an album that branched into remix sounds, and this track seems to rely solely on the “O” vowel to tell a story. “Ignorance isn’t wise, but it beats being alone,” Clarkson sings before asking if anybody is listening. We hear you loud and clear!
“The War is Over,” penned by Gad and Olivia Waithe, is a resolute kiss-off after a turbulent break up. Sure, Clarkson demonstrates her haunted soul, but she makes it clear that she’s the one doing the walking away. “You don’t deserve me,” she concludes over the bridge. The thing that makes this track interesting is that Clarkson has taken her pain (and previous breakup songs) and churned out a lyrical improvement and more mature take. It goes without saying that her vocals are on point, and she makes sure to choose specific moments to drive forward and pull back.
A jazzy track, “Let Me Down,” written by Clarkson and Chris Destefano, is a starlet uptempo of Stronger. With a distinct drum track, anthemic immersion, and fancy hook, Clarkson has hit a sweet spot. As with previous chart-toppers, “Down” is a mix of commercial appeal and artistic growth to warrant a single release. “You’re only gonna let me down. When it counts, you’ll count down,” Clarkson echoes over a head-bobbing beat. There is enough juice to this track that allows her vocals to soar in ways that have made her famous to begin with.
Taking another brick to the media’s glass house, “You Can’t Win,” written with Abraham, Goldstein, and Felix Bloxsom, is Clarkson’s vengeful and flavorful defense. Instead of playing coy, like “Mr. Know It All,” “Win” is spicy and ruthless in its message. A bombastic chorus and backing track gives control back to Clarkson, who certainly has clawed her way through plenty of weight gains and losses and media glares. “Win,” particularly rough around the edges lyrically, is simply a similar shade of previously treaded material. However, like never before, the “Walk Away” chanteuse takes charge without any regrets.
Going from sixty to zero, Clarkson delicately pulls the reigns in on “Breaking Your Own Heart,” written by Jennifer Hanson and Michael Logen. A fearful ode, “Heart,” swells and bends Stronger into a lovely surprise. “Too many tears, too many falls. It’s easier here behind these walls,” Clarkson testifies. What [he] is most afraid of is breaking hearts, but, in fact, he forgets to protect his own heart. A man that is a self-fulfilling prophesy looks for and desires love, but it somehow falls through the cracks time and time again. With a hint of string manipulation, “Heart,” which tears every assumption about Clarkson to shreds, clocks in at just under four minutes. This is the magic of great lyrics and a great vocalist.
Four additional tracks, including “Don’t You Wanna Stay,” a Billboard #1 duet with country superstar Jason Aldean, round out a mature and complex Clarkson set. “Alone” and “Don’t Be a Girl About It” mirror many of the same themes explored throughout Stronger and suffice as exemplary pop songs. It is the closing track, “The Sun Will Rise,” penned by Danelle Leverett and Kyle Jacobs, that glows brighter than many of the actual album tracks. With an appearance by singer-songwriter Kara Dioguardi, “Sun” builds from a chilling violin opening to a glorious and goose bump-inducing crescendo. Dioguardi’s vocals might not quite be on par with Clarkson’s, which perhaps keeps the track from reaching its full potential, but both singers deliver an emotionally charged performance.
Must Listens: “What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger),” “You Love Me,” “Let Me Down,” “The Sun Will Rise”
Rating: *** 1/2 out of 5