As usual, I am late to the Kelly Clarkson album review game, but at least I've narrowed down the delay to a couple weeks rather the months it took for the last one. I have managed to avoid all professional reviews so as to keep my first impression untainted. I did, unfortunately, catch an iTunes user comment that said "Not enough ballads" though, so my mind is not totally pure. (A quick side note, I really hate iTunes user reviews.)
Kelly Clarkson's Stronger - Deluxe Version:
"Mr. Know It All" - The first single and the only one I've heard before. When it first premiered on the radio I was all "eh" but it didn't take much to grow on me. It was the lyrics that turned me off at first, specifically, rhyming "know-it-all" with "know it all", "all", and "y'all" in first four lines of the opening verse. But the rest of the song is catchy, has a mature, subtle chorus, and most importantly, doesn't sound like a "Since U Been Gone" clone which plagued the opening two songs on her last album. Refreshingly, the piano and guitar share the air instead of being another trendy electropop tune with a simple repeating guitar riff. There are some cheesy little electronic drum loops but they're only used sparingly. All in all, I like the song, especially as a first single. I do hope there will be some tracks that kick it up a notch in intensity though.
One other quick note--the opening to this sounds clipped like the song is joined in progress. It was so jarring that I started it over a few times to make sure it was actually playing from the beginning. Maybe I have a defective version?
"What Doesn't Kill You (Stronger)" - The intro to this made me worry we've already hit the cliche electropop tune I was talking about before, but the vocals keep it reigned in. Until the chorus at least. The chorus--foreshadowed in the titled--is pretty much a mid-tempo danceable electropop empowerment song on autopilot.
"Dark Side" - Xylophones, vibraphones, and music boxes give me Earections, so I love the lead-in here. In fact like most of what's going on here--the mood, the music, and the melody--but the generic lyrics are a distraction. Kelly Clarkson even at her most rebellious still basically comes across as a sweetheart, so lyrics like "Do you love me even with my dark side?" don't provide enough examples of this darkness I should be fearing. Are there drunken blackout orgies backstage? Does she torture puppies? Has she been slowly poisoning my V-8? I feel like that she stepped into the shadows a bit on My December when she battled her record company for creative control, but I just don't see it here. Of course, if the song is really a first person narrative from the perspective of Darth Vader, then I get it.
"Honestly" - Ok, now we're getting darker. I still don't know exactly what darkness she's talking about, but this song at least attempts some actual dark imagery (knives, Stepford wives). Her vocals are desperate and sound good with the distorted guitars that show up later. There's also a cool, unexpected chord progression in the bridge.
"You Love Me" - The muted, breezy intro serves as a good contrast to the previous song. Good vocal layering and effects. It has a late 80s adult pop radio feel to it, complete with the fade out.
"Einstein" - Is this going to be "Mr. Know-It-All Part 2"? It starts with a couplet exponentially worse than Pearl Jam's "Nothingman": "Simple math/our love divided by the square root of pride/multiply your lifeless time/I'm going out of my mind." It's just so awkward. Now I wrote a song once with some cryptic numbers and Pythagorean references in it, but the song was about astronauts and space and shit, so it fit but this song is...
Holy fucking Jesus, the chorus is "Dumb plus dumb equals you." I can't believe the song has sunk to this level. When Slipknot sang "People = Shit," I thought it was the lowest common denominator a mathematical song chorus could get, but I see I was wrong. This can't possibly be better than the four B-Sides, could it? I would forgive the chorus if the rest of the song was equally ridiculous or tongue-in-cheek, like Alanis Morrissette covering "My Humps." But Kelly Clarkson plays it totally straight, resulting in potentially the biggest misstep on the album.
"Standing In Front of You" - Nice.
"I Forgive You" - Here's one chasing the "Since U Been Gone" formula a little bit, but slower. It has melodies and themes combining Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream" and Taylor Swift's "Love Story." This will undoubtedly appear at the triumphant end of a romantic comedy in the next 9 months.
"Hello" - I like this one because it's got a standard rock band arrangement without tons of background layers and we're in and out in less than three minutes.
"The War is Over" - Merry Xmas? Nope. This one's all right though. Pretty standard setup again, but this time with some synthesizers swirling around. I predict this will not appear at the triumphant end of an action movie in the next 9 months.
"Let Me Down" - Uh oh, getting funky. This one sounds wide in the stereo spectrum. Ok tune. Will probably grow on me.
"You Can't Win" - Good upbeat tune despite the pessimistic title. Kelly's doing some Katy Perry-like twists in the melodies and lyrics that she really only did before on Katy Perry co-written tunes, but surprisingly, it's not co-written by Katy Perry. Also, Katy Perry Katy Perried the Katy Perry. I normally poo poo songs with generic references to suppressed groups, but this tune handles the lyrics cleverly.
"Breaking Your Own Heart" - Decent ballad, nearly almost a pseudo-country-esque-ish song.
"Don't You Wanna Stay"(w/Jason Aldean) - I think I heard actually this duet on the radio earlier this year. The guy's voice is too twangy for me, but they sound tolerable together. It's a mostly predictable tune that's probably too country for pop and too pop for county. You can't win.
"Alone" - Fairly formulaic uptempo song with predictable, repetitive progressions.
"Don't Be a Girl About It" - Another electropop Katy Perry-type tune in terms of lyrical content and delivery. I'm surprised this didn't replace the "Dumb equals you" song.
"The Sun Will Rise" (w/Kara DioGuardi) - I feel bad for any other female vocalist that has to appear on the same track as Kelly Clarkson, because Kelly will inevitably sound, well, stronger. The tune's all right but I see how it might not fit on the album proper. Overall though, much of the album sounded like it was obviously different sessions and different writers, so maybe it wouldn't have made a difference.
There's an fifth bonus track called "Why Don't You Try" if you get the deluxe version on iTunes (same price as Amazon) but I've only heard the live version. It's got shitloads of high notes and good singing.
I guess I'm here reaching the same non-conclusion as with my wrap-up of the last album--I don't know what to think. I'll probably stick to listening to my favorites and not giving the others too many chances, which is what I've done with her past albums. I'm not sure how this will do. It doesn't break much ground for the world of music or radio, but there are some decent tunes that will probably grown on me with repeated listens. I could see "You Can't Win" being a moderately successful single. Maybe one of the "Since U Been Gone"-types could hit radio too, but I doubt that any of the songs on the album will reach that popularity.
One definite conclusion I can draw is that too many fucking people are co-writing on the album and it makes the output inconsistent. The problem is some people want the ballads, some want the electropop, and the songs don't really compromise. I can handle them both within the same song and don't need so much obvious segregation. Maybe it will sell better that way, but the album ends up suffering artistically. You can satisfy these genres and still have a progressive, dynamic album. I know I'm broken record raving about Olivia Ruiz nonstop, but her last album is a great example of the variety I'm talking about. And she got her break after an American Idol-like program too.
I guess even with the strongest female voice in pop music, You Can't Win.