It's been nearly a decade since the world watched Kelly Clarkson, the Texas-native girl next door, take the title as America's first Idol. Nine years later, and still one of the show's most successful spawns (aside from country Queen Carrie Underwood), Clarkson emerges with her fifth album entitled Stronger.
No stranger to pop-anthems and power ballads - Clarkson's last efforts taught the master class -, it's those missing elements that keep this album from actually living up to its title. Sure, the disco-inspired title track "What Doesn't Kill You (Stronger)" has all the makings of a Top 40 mega-hit. It bursts into the turbulent, feel-good chorus we've come to expect from the expert, but the 13-tracks on the long-awaited new LP lack the growth and reinvention that many hoped to see since the singer's fourth album, All I Ever Wanted, landed in early 2009.
Perhaps without the continuous push of this new album's release date, it would have felt more relevant. But as the industry evolves, the economy tanks and political issues take center stage, I expected more from the outspoken songstress. Or perhaps it's the result of the war she waged with some of the biggest hit makers in the biz, who are noticeably absent from this go-around. No Ryan Tedder penned melodies (that later could be heard, slightly altered by some other power diva on the chart) and no Max Martin or Dr. Luke, the team behind some of her most memorable hits. Instead, Stronger is loaded with generic, scorned-girl tunes that teeter on corny when it comes to lyrical content.
I did a double-take when I heard her belt "our love divided by the square root of pride" on the up-tempo track "Einstein" and later reveal that although she may not be as smart as Albert, she does know "dumb plus dumb equals you". Lyrics that are literally laughable over a delicious pop beat and catchy melody. And on the up-tempo thrasher "You Can't Win", she works at coming to terms with her inner-self rather than focusing on what others have to say. At first glance it seems filled with potential, but with lyrics like "If you're thin, poor little walking disease/ If you're not, they're all screaming obese/ If you're straight, why aren't you married yet/ If you're gay, why aren't you waving a flag", the whole thing becomes a joke.
There are some standouts on the album, though. The first, being Clarkson's undeniable talent and the voice that won the hearts of millions - something that will carry her long into her 30's, which she'll be entering in April of next year. And for Clarkson fans looking for the choruses bursting with thrashing guitars and chest-thumping drums, check out "Let Me Down", the previously mentioned title track and "Dark Side". A gentle at-first track that opens with music box chimes and rages in the chorus with "everybody's got a dark side/ do you love me? / can you love mine?" - one of the singer's most authentic moments on the disc. "You Love Me" is pop music at its finest and serves as a reminder that when in doubt, turn to the eighties for guidance. The track, light and catchy with an echo-y production, could have found it's home on the big screen serving as the soundtrack to such iconic films as Pretty In Pink or The Breakfast Club. But, don't be fooled by the track's title, it's still a bummer of a song.
Those looking for the softer moments should be warned that Kelly offers very few on Stronger. But when she serves up "Breaking Your Own Heart" - the ballad with the biggest production - or "Standing In Front of You", its a reminder that her voice is capable of so much more than the shrill screams she let's out on the anthemic numbers. The mid-tempo first single "Mr. Know It All" and "Honestly" are growers, but lack at making an initial impact as illustrated by the single's poor performance on the charts. And for Idol fans, you'll be happy to find the show's one-time judge Kara DioGuardi joining Clarkson on "The Sun Will Rise", a bonus track from the Deluxe version.
While it may not be her "strongest" album to date, she's still one of America's sweethearts and will ultimately be forgiven for delivering a less-than-stellar album. Let's just hope she picks the standouts as singles and abruptly begins work on a follow up.
Stronger is available everywhere on October 24.