After winning the first American Idol
, former telemarketer and sometimes Sabrina the Teenage Witch
extra Kelly Clarkson's career in music seemed assured. With two red-hot singles to her name, the Idol-winning ballad ‘A Moment Like This’ and the massive dance-pop hit ‘Miss Independent,’ her profile (and her “profile” has been as much a source of discussion as her vocal talents) had already afforded her success in the UK and Australia aswell as North America. Then it all went a little pear-shaped; Subsequent singles ‘Low’ and ‘The Trouble with Love Is’ were relative failures and rumours of her imminent demise became rife. Then there was ‘From Justin to Kelly,’ which I haven’t seen but hate nonetheless, in which she co-starred with fellow Idolator and Smokey Robinson-look-alike Justin Guarini. The film is considered by many to be one of the worst films ever, second only to ‘Anus Magillicutty’ on IMDb’s “Bottom 100 Worst Films.” Such is the context in which Breakaway
Now free from her Idol
contract, Kelly set her sights on a more rock-oriented direction, in the vein of Avril Lavigne. And it was a song deemed unsuitable for the aformentioned’s Under the Skin
album that set her on her way: ‘Breakaway’ was initially intended as a stop-gap single while the new album was being recorded, but its huge success prompted its inclusion on the album and, later, gave the album its title. Clarkson even enlisted some of that album’s writers and producers for the project- pop’s most in-demand songwriter Kara DioGuardi, producer John Shanks, ex-Evanescence guitarist Ben Moody and the Canadian husband-and-wife duo, Raine Maida of alt. rockers Our Lady Peace and Chantal Kreviazuk. Also into the fold are Swedish pop legends (what would a pop album be without
Swedes?) Dr. Luke and Max Martin, composer of ‘...Baby One More Time’ among others.
As is to be expected, the album is firmly centered on Clarkson’s booming blues-diva voice. Though comparisons will inevitably (and have been) drawn with other heavyweights of the pop-rock genre- Avril Lavigne, Ashlee Simpson, Sheryl Crowe- however Clarkson’s voice is inherently superior to all of these artists: the latter pair’s gravelly crooning bears little real resemblance to Kelly’s clean jazz/blues-informed timbre; the comparisons to Avril are far more relevant, and her influence (or rather her example) can be heard throughout the album, but the Canadian’s pleasant vocals exhibit neither the variety nor the charisma shown here.
Aside from the strong songwriting on offer, that’s what really sets this album apart from the competition: while most pop albums suffer from a certain type of redundancy brought about by a large amount of rather similar material, Breakaway
is conspicuous in the absence of any real ‘filler,’ a difficult feat to accomplish across a 45-minute pop album. The difference is not that the material is so unique but that the singer is so accomplished that she can keep interesting a set of songs that another singer might make sound derivative. The album is divided pretty evenly between ballads and the rockier pop songs, but even the usually staid pop ballad here serves up much diversity: Opening track ‘Breakaway,’ while I hasten to label it a “power ballad,” contrasts a fairly typical acoustic verse with a soaring pop chorus, punctuated by Clarkson’s powerful but controlled voice; ‘Because of You,’ on the other hand, bears an interesting resemblance to Evanescence’s ‘My Immortal’ (the music was written by Ben Moody of Evanescence) but Clarkson takes the piano-driven song in a different direction with a stormy, hard blues vocal (avoiding the typical raised-key final chorus cliché along the way).
Instrumentally, the focus is very much of creating tight arrangements without encroaching on the vocal tracks- while the rocky choruses feature crashing, distorted guitar chords and drumming, aswell as intense string arrangements, the vocals are mixed highly and double-tracked to ensure they cut through effectively. This is amply demonstrated on the chorus of album-highlight ‘Addicted To You,’ where the contrasting vocal lines overpower even the band and string section, creating an irresistible combination of sounds competing with each other. The same can be said of the latest advances in the flourishing Swedish manufacturing sector: twin compositions ‘Since U Been Gone’ and ‘Behind These Hazel Eyes’ which, despite the type of ballsy choruses which would make Jimmy Eat World blush, allow the vocal melodies to represent themselves. These tight, but less than innovative, arrangements serve the primary function of ornamenting the sometimes phenomenal vocals without themselves attracting more attention than is needed.
The singer co-wrote six of the album’s eleven new cuts (‘Beautiful Disaster’ is a live version of a track from Thankful
), the vast majority of her contribution coming in the form of lyrics. Her contribution appears modest, but is instrumental in creating some thematic consistency. Her lyrics deal with loss of friendships and loved ones and, while perhaps not worthy of excessive attention, nonetheless communicate the desired feeling. ‘Because Of You’ is an fiery ode to her absentee father; ‘Behind These Hazel Eyes’ and ‘Where Is Your Heart’ rail against an inconsiderate lover, while another highlight, ‘Walk Away,’ and ‘Addicted’ deal with the source of her relationship angst. Her words range from the touching: “Because of you I never stray too far from the sidewalk/Because of you I learned to play on the safe side so I don’t get hurt”
; to the (over)dramatic: [i]“ just thought you were the one/Broken up deep inside/But you won’t get to see these tears I cry”
; to the downright ridiculous: “You’ve got your mother and your brother/Every other undercover telling you what to say.”
While Kelly Clarkson is a long way short of ranking amongst pop’s biggest names (did you read those lyrics?) and, with only two releases to her name, time will only tell if she’ll become this decade’s Michael Jackson or whether she’ll fade away to become the female Justin Guarini (not Smokey Robinson); Breakaway
is by no means the Thriller
to her Off The Wall
, but Kelly Clarkson has at least (with a lot of help, it must be said) created a rare type of album, a pop album which offers a full selection of potential singles, reminiscent of Jackson’s Bad
, which combines mass appeal with artistic integrity and perceived longevity (digital sales of the album’s five singles alone already exceed five million). Breakaway
may be remembered in years to come as a pop classic, alongside Madonna’s early material perhaps, or it might suffer the fate of Tiffany, Lolly and the like. Somehow the former seems the more likely at this moment in time.
[The UK and European editions of Breakaway
feature bonus cuts of ‘Miss Independent’ and ‘Low’ from Kelly’s debut album, Thankful