Thursday, March 12, 2009

"All I Ever Wanted" Was For Kelly To Stay True To Herself

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, behind her hazel eyes was a young girl whose voice had the power to win over an entire country and transform her into an international icon. Hailing from Burleson, Texas, Kelly Clarkson was just a small-town Southern girl with big dreams and even bigger pipes. In 2002, she took the crown of America’s first “Idol,” paving the way for a path to music super stardom. Her debut album Thankful boasted singles such as “Miss Independent” and the historic “A Moment Like This,” which broke records on billboard chart history by leaping from number 52 to number 1 in its week of release.

It wasn’t until 2004, however, that Clarkson started to expose her true creative colors. She gaining more control of her follow-up record, Breakaway, transforming her from just an American idol into a global force to be reckoned with. With over 13 million copies sold worldwide, the album consisted of an array of chart-topping singles, such as “Behind These Hazel Eyes,” “Because Of You,” “Walk Away,” “Breakaway,” and the signature Clarkson anthem, “Since U Been Gone.” It was clear that this Texan was impacting music across the planet.

Then came the infamous My December debacle. For her third album, Clarkson demanded complete control over the record. The album was written entirely by her and her band, recorded in large part on her tour bus. No outside songwriters were welcome, as she wanted to not only prove to the world that she was a true artist, but also an intelligent and talented musician who actually had interesting things to say. But her label’s executives were not impressed with the result. The sweet pop star they had been growing had gone dark. The album was full of angry and hurt songs with much heavier guitar riffs and percussion, turning America’s sweetheart into a vengeful rock chick. This vulnerable and exposed persona threatened Clarkson’s image, because people turned to her for feel-good pop hooks, not Nirvana meets Alanis Morissette inspired angst music.

As a result, Sony BMG released the album in 2007 under the deal that if it did not sell well, Clarkson would agree to return to work with professional songwriters and hit-makers for her next record. After funding one music video in the United States, the label promptly stopped all promotion for the album and instead invested all its money in Carrie Underwood, America’s newest obsession and more obedient Idol winner. Although it is by far her most critically acclaimed work to date, as well as the favorite album of most of her die-hard fans, My December’s sales of 2.2 million did not meet the label’s expectations, kicking Clarkson’s creativity to the curb and forcing her to adhere to what they wanted all along – a manufactured sequel to Breakaway.

On March 10th, 2009, Clarkson’s forth album, All I Ever Wanted, was released to a wide international market. The title alone seems like a cruel joke on the label’s part, almost as though they are mocking her. What she wanted was to be a true artist, like on My December, not a programmed money-making machine like this. True, she was not stripped of all creative control on the record, as she still ended up co-writing half the tracks, but the raw and real musician from My December had clearly been killed off. In January, the record’s first single “My Life Would Suck Without You” once again shattered records by having the biggest jump in Billboard chart history. Going from number 97 to number 1 in a single week and topping charts around the globe, the blond and photo-shopped pop-star version of Clarkson the label had been waiting for had clearly returned.

The album opens with this single, setting up the formula for the dance infused pop/rock that dominates the record. The structure of the song is exactly the same as that of “Since U Been Gone,” with everything from the opening guitar chords to the soaring chorus being cloned. The track can almost be seen as a sequel to Clarkson’s staple song, as the lyrics tell the story of a couple rekindling their love after realizing that they “belong together” even though they had some sort of dysfunctional relationship in the past.

Set to begin impacting radio in April, the album continues with “I Do Not Hook Up”, the next guaranteed smash single, cementing itself into the track listing for whenever Clarkson releases a greatest hits record. This spring-break ready anthem is the “you don’t need to be having sex with a guy to get him to like you” song that parents have been praying for since Miley Cyrus and Vanessa Hudgens started taking topless photos. Co-written by new Idol judge Kara Dioguardi and current popstar Katy Perry, the track carefully follows the bubblegum-pop-infused-with-a-hint-of-rock hit making structure that makes up Perry’s album. In fact, when this song hits number one and stays on top of the charts until the summer, Perry will no doubt be kicking herself for not releasing it on her own record when she had the chance. Its true that the lyrical content would not fit well on an album that includes songs such as “I Kissed A Girl”, but it would certainly sell as much (if not more).

The album’s most memorable songs, however, are not the upbeat radio friendly designed-for-karaoke singles, but rather the ballads. The Patty Griffin inspired “Cry” has Clarkson belting what can easily be the definitive breakup song of 2009. Unlike her previous ballads, however, Clarkson draws heavily from her southern roots, giving this song a very country-like feel. Its monumental chorus and heartbroken vocals evoke comparisons to Underwood’s “I Know You Won’t”, and it’s not difficult to picture the track having an accompanying music video consisting of flashbacks involving dancing around in a barn while driving away in a pick-up truck.

Recently discovered musical wonder-boy Ryan Tedder (of OneRepublic fame, as well as the man responsible for the massive Leona Lewis hit “Bleeding Love”) serves Clarkson up with ballads that will leave her voice echoing through stadiums and the hearts of their audiences. On “Save You,” Clarkson showcases her flawless ability to dominate her upper register, sending chills that hit every vertebra before rushing out through the skull. The track’s melodious layering of piano and violin stirs in an aurally delicious infusion of classical influences with modern pop to create a unique ballad that truly stands out amongst today’s generic slowed down heartbreak songs.

With “Already Gone,” Tedder essentially carbon copies the formula he used when creating Beyonce’s current hit, “Halo,” and Kelly-ified it. Although Clarkson compares the song to Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” the similarities between it and “Halo” are unarguable. That said, it’s a lovely song with angelical vocals that fluctuate between powerful alto notes to intoxicating soprano harmonies.

Anyone who doubts that Clarkson has the most powerful female voice in today’s music scene should just listen to her mind blowing rendition of Keri Noble’s “If No One Will Listen,” a perfect companion to Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” but taken to the next level of vocal godliness. “If no one will listen if you decide to speak, if no one’s left standing after the bombs explode, if no one wants to look at you for what you really are, I will be here still,” Clarkson croons over an illustrious combination of simple instruments that crescendo alongside her vocals for the dramatic conclusion.

The album's superior track, however, is hands down "Don't Let Me Stop You," a culmination of the best from both the pop/rock and country worlds. Originally intended to be more of an R&B flavored song, Clarkson teamed up with My Chemical Romance and Hawthorne Heights producer Howard Benson to give the song more of a rock sound. The result is an up-tempo track that will simultaneously appeal to a radio audience as well as music critics. Other fast paced songs such as the 70's soul/rock feel of the title track, the heavily Veronicas inspired danceable "If I Can't Have You," and the old school No Doubt sound of "Whyyouwannabringmedown" round out the record with a sense of versatility that seldom current pop albums have.

While Clarkson’s dreams of being a self-sufficient singer/songwriter were clearly crushed, it is apparent that she put her all into her new album. Although it is a record that tackles various influences and crosses over a plethora of genres underneath the cliché pop umbrella, All I Ever Wanted is a clearly manufactured and carefully structured record designed to make money more than impress music critics. It is an obviously forced compilation of tracks not interested in furthering Clarkson’s artistic integrity. Yes, it is a fun pop album with illustrious hooks and beautiful ballads that will stay in your head for a long time. That being said though, if this wasn’t a Kelly Clarkson album I’d probably thoroughly appreciate it.

However, as an avid Kelly fan and My December enthusiast, I am saddened to hear what Clarkson has been resorted to. Yes, I’ve listened to the album on repeat since I’ve gotten it, but that’s only because she’s the only artist that can make a record of forced material sound her own. I’m looking forward to seeing Clarkson perform these songs live on her summer tour so that she can personify them a little more. I’m truly hoping that with the money her label is inevitably going to make from this album, they’ll allow Clarkson to return to her angst-y heavy-rock border traipsing ways to create a record of real, as opposed to just “catchy”, music.

Must have track: "Don't Let Me Stop You"

Out of 4 Stars: 3

Like it? Buy it here


1 comment:

Randal said...

I am also a huge My December enthusiast. But I am surprised you have 'Don't Let Me Stop You' as the must-have track. That's one of my least favorites. I don't think it's bad, it just doesn't stand out to me. Already Gone is my favorite, and yes it does sound similar to 'Halo', but it was written and recorded before Halo was. Overall I agree with your review. I like the album, but I'm waiting for the return of the less controlled Kelly.