Review Summary: The darkest passage in Kelly's career became one of her best albums.
Apart from being the very first winner of the vocal-based talent show American Idol
, Kelly Clarkson seems to be one of the only (successful) contestants of the program to do something else: retain her individuality. Oh sure, she started
as a vapid vehicle for Simon Cowell’s tasteless and bland pop enterprising with her debut album, which saw her aping Mariah Carey’s style on boring R&B tunes. But I think most of us know what changed everything… that wonderful little number called “Since U Been Gone.” The power pop track was a strong sign of forward movement in Clarkson’s career, abandoning her old sound for a harder-edged style with hard rock and pop punk elements.
In fact, the entire Breakaway
album was a huge leap for this reason. The R&B was still there, but combined with more diverse offerings and much punchier instrumentation. But the most important factor was that Kelly wrote or co-wrote much more of the material than on her debut; she was becoming a more independent force, a notable thing in a genre so littered with professional songwriters. However, as Clarkson would eventually admit herself, this hunger for independence got a bit out of hand following Breakaway
. She decided to be the primary songwriter for every track on My December
, she ended up in conflict with Clive Davis and Sony BMG because of the album supposedly being too dark, and thus an ugly controversy erupted regarding artistic integrity vs. record sales. Clive Davis even refused to mention My December
while promoting new records on American Idol
. And when the album came out, it was deemed a failure commercially and considered mediocre by many critics. Well, the latter is where I’m going to have to disagree.
I’ll say this much, however: yes, My December
is a hell of a lot more angsty and dark than Breakaway
. I said the latter had elements of hard rock, but My December
, for all intents and purposes, IS pretty much a hard rock record. The opener “Never Again” is easily one of Kelly’s heaviest, more distorted, and most pissed off songs to date, and the overall vibe is felt throughout most of the rock tracks here. Here’s the thing though… this did seem like the most logical progression for Kelly’s career. After the pop-rock-oriented Breakaway
, getting darker and heavier seems like a strong path to take. Besides, there are still heartfelt ballads here, such as “Sober” and “Irvine,” so the transition isn’t really that abrupt. In fact, the diversity of this album in one of its strongest features; Clarkson goes through pop, pop punk, alternative rock, hard rock, soul, R&B, and folk throughout the course of the album’s 13 tracks, and not one genre sounds out of place. The production is great too, being slick and controlled but also highlighting the loose energy of the distorted guitar work in the faster tunes.
But it all comes down to the quality of the songs, and there’s plenty to enjoy here if you’re a pop-rock or alternative rock fan. “Never Again,” “One Minute,” “Hole,” and “Judas” are all well-composed hard rock songs, and while the lyrics aren’t exceptional, Kelly’s passionate delivery more than makes up for deficiencies on that front. And speaking of which, her vocals are fantastic on this album. She can switch between intense wails, R&B crooning, soul-inspired melisma, and subdued folk-inspired vocal stylings with ease, and her voice is truly in top form. In fact, listen to the ballad “Sober” and you can hear all of the aforementioned styles at different points in the song because of the varying dynamics. There are some serious duds on here as well, unfortunately, most notably the bland power pop track “Don’t Waste Your Time” and the alternative metal-based Evanescence rip-off “Haunted.” But there are also plenty of experiments that I can safely say I genuinely did not expect, such as the jazzy horn arrangements on the propulsive R&B jam “Yeah” and the extremely low-key folk sound of closer “Irvine.” There’s also something admirable about the whole “fuck you” attitude much of the album has, especially in the world of flavorless and overly glossy performers usually featured on American Idol
. I’m not saying this album is perfect by any means, and the dark tone can get quite tedious after a while, but the diversity and quality songwriting (much of it by Kelly herself, of course) lead me to highly recommend it despite its flaws.
Apparently, Clarkson’s newest album Piece by Piece
was her last album under her American Idol
recording contract, and then she will be releasing a soul album next year. A soul album certainly seems like a good record to make, given Kelly’s vocal talents and quality as an artist, but it would be really interesting to see if she ever makes an album like My December
again. She herself said this was the lowest point of her career, but I’d love to hear another hard rock album by her. Kelly certainly has the pipes and the musical prowess as a whole, but as for now, this is the record to listen to if you want to hear heavier songs by a primarily pop-oriented artist. And it’s a damn good one too.