It’s been three years, a marriage, and a baby girl since we’ve last been blessed with a Kelly Clarkson album. After listening to her latest offering, Piece By Piece, it seems like we would’ve been just fine replaying our favorite Kelly Clarkson songs from yester-year as not much has changed sonically. The thirteen-track set could easily be mistaken for Clarkson’s previous effort, Stronger. That’s not to say that Piece By Piece is a bad album by any standard. It has that classic Kelly Clarkson appeal, from her pop-R&B vocals to the country-rock driven guitar licks. What it doesn’t have is an identity of its own, relying too heavily on the singer’s commercial strengths rather than her artistry.
Kelly Clarkson hasn’t seen much input on her material since the commercial failure of 2007’s My December. While the album didn’t receive the support of her label, Kelly took an artistic risk that paid off in that it remains one of her most innovative albums to date (You can place it right up there with Christina Aguilera’s Stripped in terms of versatility and originality). Sure, we love the anthemic hooks on songs like ‘Since You Been Gone‘ and ‘Stronger.’ Of course we feel all of the feels on the big emotional ballads ‘Because Of You‘ and ‘Already Gone.’ But there’s something about the rawness on My December that hit you right in the jugular (songs like ‘Sober,’ ‘Don’t Waste Your Time,’ ‘Be Still,’ and ‘Maybe’ come to mind) and position Clarkson in a category of her own instead of being just another vehicle for the hit maker of the moment (aka Sia). I digress. Kelly is obviously in a much different place personally, if not professionally. Piece By Piece is a much softer Kelly, lyrically, trading in the heartbreaks of the past for the hope of the future. That much we can be happy about.
Lead single, ‘Heartbeat Song,’ was the first indication that Clarkson had shed her tears and was feeling all mushy. While remaining a standard catchy pop tune it lacks, well, heart, and it’s melody seems heavily influenced by pop-punk band, Jimmy Eat World’s 2001 hit, ‘The Middle.’ The Sia-penned, ‘Invincible,’ is more convincing with its booming chorus and uplifting lyrics (a’la Stronger). And ‘Someone,’ albeit a beautiful song about finding that person “to be the reason you breathe”, we’ve heard it before (‘Standing In Front Of You’).
Fan favorite ‘Take You High’ has been described as a departure for Clarkson with it’s heavily EDM-influenced chorus. Influenced being the key word. Kelly has been flirting with electronic music since All I’ve Ever Wanted‘s ‘My Life Would Suck Without You,’ and ‘Take You High’ hasn’t broke anymore ground. The song fails to really take it there, falling flat where it really could benefit from an increase in tempo, creating an unexpected album highlight. ‘Let Your Tears Fall’ suffers the same fate. Where Clarkson does succeed at being a danceish diva is on the Taylor Swift-esque ‘War Paint,’ Dancing With The Stars Season bajillion theme song, ‘Dance With Me,’ and the eighties influenced ‘Nostalgic.’
Title track, ‘Piece By Piece,’ sounds like what happened after the Breakaway hit, ‘Because Of You,’ went to therapy. Again, a beautiful track left at the mercy of its predecessor. ‘I Had A Dream,’ ‘Tightrope,’ and standard edition closer, ‘Good Goes The Bye’ are perfectly adequate balladry, yet remain uninspired.
The album highlight, ‘Bad Reputation,’ appears on the deluxe edition most likely because it doesn’t fit in with the Kelly Clarkson-ness of Piece By Piece. ‘Bad Reputation’ sounds like if Clarkson sang her debut single, ‘Miss Independent,’ on American Idol’s Big Band Night. With it’s Stevie Wonder-esque instrumental intro, Clarkson’s soulful vocals soar (my favorite adjective to describe a diva’s singing abilities) over a stomping chorus and blaring horns. It would make for an interesting single choice as it would fit in with the throwback feel of songs like ‘Uptown Funk‘ while remaining original.
I’m sure Piece By Piece will be a commercial success for Kelly, which at this point seems to be what she’s going for. It would just be nice to see glimpses of the artist that wasn’t afraid to dive in the deep end, and produce the masterpiece that is ‘Sober.’