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Kelly Clarkson, ‘Stronger’ – Album Review

Kelly Clarkson StrongerKelly Clarkson’s relationship with commercial success is a thorny one. From the slick pop-R&B of her debut, ‘Thankful,’ to relentless Dr. Luke-helmed smashes on ‘Breakaway,’ to the darkly artistic rock of ‘My December,’ and back to sticky-sweet pop on ‘All I Ever Wanted,’ Clarkson has always seemed at her most comfortable when she’s at her least commercial; she was more in her element making weird, haunting, self-penned rock on ‘My December’ than singing Max Martin’s likably adolescent ‘My Life Would Suck Without You.’

Clarkson didn’t write every song on ‘Stronger’ — for this album, she’s worked with well-known hitmakers like Greg Kurstin, Toby Gad, and even Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins — but she’s credited on most of these tracks, and her stamp is all over them. ‘Stronger’ is crunchy, personal, and frequently rageful in the way ‘My December’ was, but rich with as many searing pop hooks as ‘Breakaway.’ Sonically, it’s tempting to see ‘Stronger’ as the culmination of her last four albums, due to its effortless integration of rock, country, dance, and R&B influences into Clarkson’s signature pop.

‘Stronger’ is also a bitter, blistering album, which is part of what makes it so much fun to listen to. Whereas lesser artists would be contented to wallow in self-pity on weepy ballads, Clarkson’s anger is surging and jubilant, gritted teeth and raised fists. Pair emotion as passionate as that with a crack team of the industry’s finest writers and producers, plus Clarkson’s still-sensational vocal gifts, and you’ve got a recipe for one of the strongest pop releases of the year.

1. ‘Mr. Know It All’
The first single from ‘Stronger’ is more understated than what we’re used to hearing from Clarkson, but no less powerful for its gentleness. Even if Clarkson holds back a little on the vocals, when she sings “You don’t know a thing about me” over that driving ‘90s backbeat, it’s a truly magic pop moment. [Listen Here]

2. ‘What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger)’
‘What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger)’ is the likely second single, and with good reason; it’s a glittery disco-rock romp punctuated by another chill-inducing Clarkson message of empowerment, “Doesn’t mean I’m lonely when I’m alone.” Electric guitars and powerful synths make this an instant sing-along classic. [Listen Here]

3. ‘Dark Side’
One of the best-received early leaks among Clarkson fans, ‘Dark Side’ grapples with authenticity in romance. The saccharine tinkle of a music box yields to atmospheric drums and another pounding chorus as Clarkson wonders “Everybody’s got a dark side / Do you love me / Can you love mine?” [Listen Here]

4. ‘Honestly’
The first real ballad on the record is one of Clarkson’s most stunning to date, airy and theatrical; “You can judge me, love me/If you’re hating me, do it honestly,” Clarkson intones in the chorus. But it’s the bridge that really shines, as the escalating drums start to feel a little claustrophobic and Clarkson murmurs “You can tell me, you can tell me.”

5. ‘You Love Me’
An ‘80s track that sounds like the theme song to a lost John Hughes movie, ‘You Love Me’ might just be our favorite song on this album; it’s New Wave-referencing rock with a pointed pop sensibility. Plinking synths yield to a triumphant, wounded chorus, as Clarkson sings, “You said you love me but that I’m not good enough, not good enough.” Stunning and heartbreaking. [Listen Here]

6. ‘Einstein’
Clarkson’s always been gifted with the art of the pop diss, and this album’s funniest might be in ‘Einstein,’ where she sings on the chorus: “I may not be Einstein but I know dumb + dumb = you.” Layers of background vocals and roaring electric guitars give the goofy lyrics an appealingly ominous edge.

7. ‘Standing in Front of You’
A ballad rooted in soft rock and country, ‘Standing in Front of You’ is buoyed by a powerful vocal performance from Clarkson, but that doesn’t entirely redeem it. After the edgy pop-rock of the first six tracks, this one feels a little damp.

8. ‘I Forgive You’
Another immensely promising demo that leaked months ago is the anthemic, Darkchild-produced ‘I Forgive You,’ which packs in another belter of a chorus above whining guitars and punchy drums. But despite the message of the chorus, when Clarkson sings, “Cause the lights are on/And there’s no one home,” it looks like forgiveness might not be so easy after all.

9. ‘Hello’
This swinging midtempo is, like ‘Mr. Know It All,’ something of a ‘90s throwback, but it definitely works, especially with the hooky chorus and heartbroken ferocity of the bridge: “Holding onto the memories of when I, I didn’t know / Ignorance isn’t wise but it beats being alone.”

10. ‘The War Is Over’
A striking ballad with throbbing drums and gorgeous layered vocals that, in some respects, evokes ‘Already Gone’ from Clarkson’s 2009 ‘All I Ever Wanted.’ When Clarkson sings, “All I can say is / You don’t deserve me / You don’t deserve me,” it’s hard not to get a little misty.

11. ‘Let Me Down’
Another early favorite with serious single potential, ‘Let Me Down’ has an oddly paranoid, dissonant vibe in its verses, and the crackliest, angriest chorus on the whole record. “You’re only gonna let me down / When it counts, you count down / You’re only gonna turn me out / As I burn, you burn out.” Ouch. [Listen Here]

12. ‘You Can’t Win’
Thoroughly likable power pop, in which Clarkson takes a stab at the haters and naysayers, addressing  long-running rumors about her weight, sexuality, and image: “If you’re thin / Poor little walking disease / If you’re not / They’re all screaming obese.” This one serves a very utilitarian purpose on the album, and it does it quite well.

13. ‘Breaking Your Own Heart’
This track gives Kelly more space to take the reins on a classic soft rock ballad; but like ‘Standing in Front of You,’ after all that edge, it doesn’t quite pack the punch it should.

Deluxe Edition:

14. ‘Don’t You Wanna Stay’
This duet with Jason Aldean, released last year, doesn’t mesh particularly well with the rest of the album (which is probably why it’s relegated to the deluxe edition) — but it does serve as a reminder of just how versatile Clarkson is an artist, since she sounds just as comfortable on this country ballad as she does on bracing rock tracks.

15. ‘Alone’
One of the best songs on the album, ‘Alone’ cribs from ‘80s acts like The Cars to sensational effect — swaggering and euphoric, it also contains another killer Clarkson slam: “‘Cause when I’m with you I’m alone.” Even her simplest digs just cut so deep.

16. ‘Don’t Be a Girl About It’
This one starts like her 2009 hit ‘I Do Not Hook Up,’ then turns into a funky little meditation on gender roles like Katy Perry’s ‘Hot ‘N Cold’ — but the chorus remains entirely irresistible.

17. ‘The Sun Will Rise’
Another duet, this time with former ‘Idol’ judge and superstar songwriter Kara DioGuardi, this moody midtempo borrows from country and arena rock to create a sound that’s distinctly Clarkson.

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