I own each of Kelly Clarkson's four albums, and that's not a problem for me to admit since she's easily one of the best pop artists to emerge this decade. That's an especially impressive accomplishment given the circumstances of her initial mainstream exposure. In the seven years following her American Idol win, Kelly has managed to sculpt an image for herself that overshadows the fact that she more or less micro-managed her way toward a record deal, and that speaks volumes about her immense talent.
Still, even with my love for Clarkson, I didn't love 2007's My December. That's a bit hard for me to admit, since popular opinion reflects the same attitude toward her brooding third album; and I'd much prefer to be in the minority. But My December was almost too self-pitying. Clarkson has a history of approaching love and loss with a mostly sardonic attitude that makes songs like "Behind These Hazel Eyes" and "Since U Been Gone" as empowering as they are mournful, and more explicitly sad songs like "Because of You" that much more appealing because of their vulnerability. On My December, Kelly traded in the wit for an outright bitterness that grows increasingly less interesting from track to track.
On her latest effort, All I Ever Wanted, Kelly manages to blend the charming approachability of her earlier work, with the lyrical substance of My December, to create an album that has just as much depth as it does commercial potential.
First single, "My Life Would Suck Without You," isn't about marketing the rest of the album, it's about convincing her fans to give her a second chance, and it works perfectly in that regard. The phenomenal success of Kelly's Breakaway was a reflection of its ability to remain relatable across a broad age-range--from middle school through college, everyone was quoting some Clarkson lyric on their away message, and "My Life Would Suck" functions in the same way. "I really shouldn't miss you, but I can't let you go" is so shamelessly Facebook status ready that it's no wonder the song shot straight to number one in the first week of its release. In that regard, it's certainly a return to form for Clarkson, but ironically one of the few low points on All I Ever Wanted.
The Katy Perry penned "I Do Not Hook Up" is a much better reflection of the rest of the album, as the song is as refreshing as it is familiar. And while the title is more or less self-explanatory, Clarkson carries it from being just a simple declaration of sexual self-agency, to becoming an anthem for those demanding some sort of substance before heading to the bedroom. But it's songs like "Impossible" and "Already Gone" that prove that Clarkson and One Republic's Ryan Tedder have a chemistry that may even surpass the brilliance of her work with Evanesence's Ben Moody ("Hazel Eyes" and "Because of You"). Both songs manage to be radio-friendly and intensely personal at the same time, which is a hard balance to find, especially in today's superficial pop consciousness. Finally, if you weren't sure that Clarkson could hold her own against that other popular idol--Carrie Underwood--check the ballad "Cry," which not only moves into Underwood's country-pop lane, but totally upstages her in the process.
Outside of "My Life Would Suck," other throw-away material includes the overly-sentimental "If No One Will Listen" ("maybe no one told you there was strength in your tears" LAME) and "Whyyawannabringmedown," which is such an Avril song that not even Clarkson can save it from drowning in embarrassing teenage angst.
But, what is most important is that through it all Clarkson's voice remains as flawless as ever, so that even the most tedious of material is worth listening to, if for her unexpectedly soulful approach alone. Kells can sing...no, really.
Here's "I Do Not Hook Up," which is basically ringtone material in my life.
Oh, and via Google it's really hard to find a decent picture of Clarkson...her publicist should probably work on that.