Review Summary: Kelly Clarkson Chapter VII: Reign of the Producers
Can you believe that it's already been over 12 years since the first season of American Idol
ended? It feels like it was just yesterday when young Texas singer Kelly Clarkson won the first incarnation of the popular singing competition, and yet so much has happened since then. While not necessarily relevant anymore in today's popular music, her impact on the landscape of modern pop and pop/rock simply can't be denied. With Breakaway
she displayed that future American Idol
stars didn't always have to stick to the show's questionable musical limitations, and the more hard rock-oriented My December
was pretty much Kelly's final middle finger to her record label as well as a generally risky move for such a big pop star. What I'm saying here is that Kelly's music is usually very much Kelly's own; she has always taken the reins of her work, despite hiring big-name collaborators. Well, now we arrive at a big moment in Clarkson's career: her very last album under her American Idol
recording contract. How is it? Well, I can sum this up in just a few words: not enough Kelly.
Instead of getting a fresh new pop/rock record that's up to Clarkson's typical songwriting and performing standards, we now get a hopelessly generic product of the same growing EDM/electropop craze that ruined Coldplay's Ghost Stories
record last year. Piece by Piece
is littered with incredibly bland four-chord radio fodder that doesn't distinguish itself from anything from today's Top 40 hits, and it's quite sad that even Clarkson's great voice can't salvage much of this experience. Then again, no matter how good her performances are, it's like putting meat on bare bones; how much can a great singer really add to bad songwriting? And that's the rotten core of this album: the soulless songwriting. If you take a gander at the track listing, you might notice that Kelly only co-writes three of the thirteen tunes featured her, and the lack of her presence cripples any personal connection a listener might try to make with it. And this lack of presence doesn't just apply to the songwriting, but to the performances as well. Albums like Breakaway
and My December
established Clarkson as a soaring powerhouse of a vocalist, one who could tackle multiple genres like rock, soul, folk, and more with ease. Here, the glossy synthesizers drown out half of her performances, and the performances that are more audible are ruined by the album's overall lack of inspiration and excitement.
This is all immediately evident from the bubbly synthpop of "Heartbeat Song," whose feel-good anthemic chorus is so bland that it could have been recorded by Katy Perry and nothing would change. From there, it continues into most of the other tracks, such as the boring midtempo clone of Taylor Swift's 1989
"Let the Tears Fall," or the expansive Sia-written electropop number "Invincible" and especially the annoyingly weak and flimsy beat of "War Paint." Everything just blends together after a while, a sad fact considering how many memorable tunes Kelly has made throughout her career. It's all just incredibly disappointing because we know that she's capable of more than what she's given us here. And, to be honest, there actually ARE a few bright spots that display what this record could have been; it mainly lies in the ballads such as "Run Run Run" and "Tightrope," which are just as intimate as previous ballads by the singer. Both are heavily piano driven, and the former's vocal harmonies between Clarkson and John Legend are just wonderful. I also love the textured symphonic buildup each song has, really carrying each emotion home when combined with Kelly's passionate performances. The title track is also really nice, combining the intimate feel of one of her ballads with a fun piano-driven dance beat that is both enjoyable and beautiful.
Still, the highlights can't salvage the incessant mediocrity of Piece by Piece
. This is, for the most part, a really bland and hollow foray into an already-overcrowded musical trend. But the question is: where will Kelly go from here? There are some promising prospects ahead of her, truth be told. She has seemed to acknowledge that this was more of a contractually obligated project, and has been looking toward the future to different genres such as country for her future albums. So, if anything, Piece by Piece
will likely just be a small bump in the road of Kelly's solid career; one can only hope that she'll return to the music she seems more comfortable and skilled at creating, rather than just being another Sia or Taylor Swift clone.