Kelly Clarkson: “Stronger”

Album Review
Kelly Clarkson: “Stronger”
Released: October 2011
RCA Records

When track fifteen of your album could be released as a single, you’ve got a record worthy of the title Stronger. Kelly Clarkson’s fifth trip to the studio serves up what is essentially a double disc (the deluxe edition flexes an imposing eighteen tracks), and normally by album number five you can sniff familiar format approaches, recycled chord progressions, and crutch lyrics. Not so with Stronger, which achieves rare status: there isn’t a single song that should be cut.

At some point in the history of commercial music, someone in California decided that a listener has heard enough original music somewhere between the forty-five and sixty-minute mark of a record. Executives promoting quantity over quality determined twelve tracks to be the magic market number, and the pop album sequencing formula was born. This formula serves three kinds of professional recording artists: those who write their own songs, those who have songs written for them, and those who could write, but are humble—or, perhaps, contractually obligated—enough to accept the experienced, skilled contributions of the record industry’s best writers and producers. All three kinds of artists can release great records, but it’s in the last arrangement where the committee mentality most threatens to debate the life out of a project. Despite whatever backstory “Behind the Music: Stronger” might reveal, two facts are non-negotiable: Kelly Clarkson is the third kind of artist, and for the first time in recent memory, that style of partnership has yielded a flawless collection of pop songs.

But strength is most exciting when it has overcome weakness, and this is the first time Kelly and company have achieved such album-long symmetry. 2009’s All I Ever Wanted felt two tracks too long: although I suspect everyone involved was pleased with the fourteen-song offering—an album with just one singer can only sustain interest for twelve songs. 2007’s My December was an embarrassment to both artist and record company; the project was meant to give pop star Kelly a quarry to all-out rock in, but its vision was obscured by tense arguments over direction between the tenacious singer and her totalitarian sponsor. The finished product sounded unfinished. Radio stations barely knew the album existed; “single” became an apt term as they played the lead-off track once or twice before turning to see what Fantasia was spinning.

On her sophomore disc (but first “real” album), 2004’s Breakaway, the title was taken literally. The record had a stripped live performance tacked onto the finish line that didn’t fit with the superb studio recordings running the rest of the disc. And we won’t mention the American Idol’s 2003 starter disc, Thankful, with its lone star-making hit, “Miss Independent.” First albums often serve as practise for the artist to learn how to make an album, and for the image people to decide if she will sell more units hoisting a halo or holding a pitchfork. The verse and chorus contrast of “Miss Independent” was sharper than that of a piano keyboard, but the remainder of the disc was better suited to teach kids about prisms.

Track skip to 2011, when America’s best production talent is once again behind America’s best idol. Stronger’s mastery of pop songwriting, its perfect (yes, apparently perfection is attainable—who knew?) fidelity, and meta-cohesive arrangements compel this writer to dare say that recorded music cannot sound better than it does here. Throughout the collection, acoustic guitars shimmer likes apparitions in the Vatican, and meticulously programmed synth lines pulse through your veins. The eighteen-song stream is teeming with hooks, and the sculpting of complex arrangements seems effortless, as though perfect musical moments in Kelly’s studio are as available as oxygen. Like the curator of Jurassic Park admitted amid the proceedings, “We spared no expense.”

Every artist making any kind of art that moves should become excellent at pacing their work —keeping their audience enthralled through every change in tempo and emotion. Stronger’s pacing is Olympic-class. The unassuming but irresistible sleeper single “Mr. Know it-All” eases us onto the red carpet before the octave-bounce bass line of the title track informs us that the ribbon has officially been cut on this new music shop. “Dark Side” crescendos to a glorious chorus, with Kelly’s angelic vocals piercing the clouds like sunbeams.The dreamy and delusional start to “Honestly” forces you to stop what you’re doing and listen, and when the band shows up just in time for the pre-chorus, the immense backing tracks scream RCA is open for business and business is booming.

Here, and later in the affair, the singer’s treatment of familiar lyrical territory with fresh structure yields pleasing and surprising results. In “Honestly,” Kelly is begging for Real, comparing the fake, image conscious people around her to living …Stepford-like lives. In “Let Me Down,” the gimmick of composing an entire chorus out of opposites (The Beatles’ “Hello Goodbye,” Katy Perry’s “Hot N Cold”) is handled sublimely: “…When it counts, you’ll count out. As I burn, you’ll burn out…”

On some albums, listening to four tracks can feel like you’ve heard all an artist has to offer (especially when most albums are sequenced to play the singles first), but the Stronger experience keeps spinning. “You Love Me” echoes a touch of eighties-pop melodrama with its lightweight guitar chugging (think: the relentless riff in “Every Move You Make”); “Hello” takes a break from the high-tech density of today’s pop arrangements to deliver an old fashioned guitar, bass, and drum groove—complete with handclaps; “I Forgive You” puts the budget in a display case; and the gently stripped-down “Standing in Front of You” finds the singer vulnerable in a genuinely pretty ballad.

The second half of Stronger begs the question, “Where’s the filler?” Answer: on someone else’s disc. “The War is Over” delivers a standard emotional performance from Kelly, but features a kick-drum pattern I’ve never heard before. The spotlight-sharing duet with country singer Jason Aldean feels like a commercial attempt to recreate the Lady Antebellum vocal sound, but ends up becoming its own hit thanks to both vocalists’ passionate pleading, and a single harmony note from Kelly that serves as the song’s ear-grabber. Mentioned at the top of the article, track fifteen, “Alone,” would open a lesser disc, but here it’s buried and beautiful; its finely tuned pop arrangement summons every Seattle-guitar and California-keyboard trick the industry has learned over the last three decades.

The weakness on any Kelly Clarkson album is the narrow lyrical subject matter. For any artist who predominantly sings about relationship and romance, there are only so many postures to take: “I’m angry about our recent break-up and need to expel my emotions in this really catchy song,” “You’re cute but I’m slow to trust again,” and “Watch out here comes all your stuff over the railing,” but one track on Stronger departs into social commentary and lends a little resonance in matters deeper than You’re-with-her-but-you-should-be-with-me-can’t-you-see? “You Can’t Win” uses clever and unpredictable word structure to describe how unattainable personal perfection and universal acceptance are for anybody, be they a small person on the street or a lofty pop star onstage.

Also laid down for seemingly the first time on a KC album is a welcome sense of humour. “Don’t Be a Girl About It” has the singer cleverly twisting emotional instability the guy’s way with the great line, “I knew a guy who changed my world then he grew into a little girl.” Kelly also forces lips to smile in “Einstein,” when she sings the album’s most luscious backing vocal: “Dumb plus dumb equals you.”

Kelly has always recorded well, shifting seamlessly from gritty rock siren to fireside songstress to faceless backing vocalist. Vocally, she reached her top speed early in her career, so the challenge for her on each album is to clarify her poetic voice and strengthen her portion of the songwriting. The search for fresh sounds failed her once before, but I wonder if that failure just taught her to attack the same target from a different angle.

Most mega-stars last their decade before family plans and alternate ambitions take root, and the record company issues the greatest hits package as a requiem. It’s been ten years since America elected this Texan to royalty, and if Kelly quits now she would be going out stronger than ever.