Monday, July 6, 2009

Album Review: All I Ever Wanted

I have to say, the more I listen to Kelly Clarkson’s music and try to understand who she is as an artist, the more confused I get. Originally, she was America’s pop sweetheart: A wholesome girl from Texas and the inaugural winner of Fox’s hit reality program, American Idol. After a few successes from her debut, Thankful, she reinvented herself as a pop/rock artist the in vein of Avril Lavigne with her sophomore album, Breakaway. Breakaway was both critically and commercially successful—a shedding of her American Idol skin so that she could make music that was more her style. Granted, it still clung to a commercial sensibility, but it was a more cohesive effort that her debut. Then, Kelly decided to make an album that would completely represent her as an artist. My December was panned by her fans, but applauded by critics. It was a dark examination of love and relationships that showcased some of Kelly’s loveliest singing and, at the end of the day, Kelly could claim ownership because she wrote or co-wrote all of the songs on the album. Although the album isolated some of her core fans, the complete integrity with which she recorded My December was admirable

Now, Kelly returns with her fourth album, All I Ever Wanted, and it takes about thirteen seconds to realize that Kelly has completely sold out. As soon as the beat kicks in on her current hit, My Life Would Suck Without You, it’s obviously that this album is a complete departure from the darkness of My December and, in some ways, a departure from anything she’s done before. This album seems to be specifically engineered to re-energize her fans with a constant barrage of glossy pop songs that are produced to the nth degree. Even the album’s most “tender” moments feel a bit disingenuous. On Cry, the album’s first power ballad, Clarkson says “Is this as hard as it gets/Is that what it really feels like to cry.” However, I have trouble believing her. Instead, I feel like she’s coloring in the lines to make her record label happy. I didn’t really give My December a fair chance. Now that I can see how the pursuit of pop perfection shows Clarkson’s sacrifice of artistic integrity and I actually think she knew what it was to cry on her last album. Now, I can’t decide if she’s a pop princess, rock goddess, or love’s philosopher. This time, she’s trying to be the jack-of-all-trades and the master of only one.

Despite my displeasure with how the album portrays Kelly as an artist, All I Ever Wanted does contain several moments of pop brilliance and should re-solidify Kelly as pop’s reigning princess. The aforementioned Cry, albeit a bit insincere, still has engaging lyrics and a soaring chorus. The glorious Already Gone is a beautiful ballad in which Clarkson describes leaving a relationship in order to help someone move on and heal. There are also some great up-tempo numbers. My Life Would Suck Without You will surely cause people to sing at the top of their lungs during the chorus and the Katy Perry penned I Do Not Hook Up is about as infectious as a song could get. Surely it will have radio success. The potential hits on this album are endless. It’s a bit overwhelming. Some of the songs even experiment with different structures. The bridge on Save You is unlike anything I’ve ever heard on a pop song, with inspiration coming from a classical piano melody. I Want You delves into a sound that seems partially inspired by Running, by No Doubt, and still manages to seem completely original. The downside of this is that All I Ever Wanted doesn’t feel like a complete idea. It’s more like a Kelly Clarkson’s Greatest Hits album, and most listeners will probably just pick their favorites and put them on repeat. I don’t really see many people looking to listen to the album in its entirety.

At the end of the day, I think I have to accept that I cannot have a Kelly Clarkson album that is an honest reflection of her artistic intentions and, simultaneously, a showcase of superb pop. I have to choose. However, just when I lose hope and think Kelly has sold her values for this album, All I Ever Wanted ends on a promising note. If No One Will Listen is Kelly’s most heartfelt and honest vocal on the album and seems to be the perfect bridge between the styles of Breakaway and My December. Kelly still confuses me, but these songs are engaging enough that I’ll keep playing them until I figure her out. Don’t worry Kelly, this time people will listen.

3/5 Stars

Savage Songs: My Life Would Suck Without You, Already Gone, and If No One Will Listen

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