Make no mistake, Kelly Clarkson will always hold the title of "Original American Idol" no matter what current champ Scotty McCreery does, no matter how many albums fellow country Idol Carrie Underwood sells or how many more Oscars Jennifer Hudson will win, heck, no matter who wins Simon Cowell's next great project "The X-Factor". And after two hotly debatable albums (the underrated "My December" and the hot mess and even more controversial "All I Ever Wanted"), the original Idol is back in more ways than one, proving that at the end of the day, she never left that chair.
Her fifth studio album "Stronger" certainly is a match for its own album title and showcases everything Clarkson has learned since her sudden rise to fame nearly a decade ago when the then fresh-faced Texan took home the first Idol crown. "Stronger" merges the raw emotion and honest lyrics from "My December" with pop/rock vocals from "Breakaway", throws in dashes of the pure pop sensibilities from "All I Ever Wanted" and she even throws a couple curveballs for good measure.
The album begins with the oft-talked about and current radio hit "Mr. Know It All", an admitted tell-off anthem of post-breakup anger and emotion, now pretty much a staple in her repetoire. The Bruno Mars-eque tune turns out to be only a half decent way to start off the album compared to the title track.
Title track "Stronger" bucks the converntional trend that title tracks tend to be the weakest of any album that uses them. The song is a fantastically built all-out dance track that could be her next big radio hit
and is wrapped with her consistently strong vocals.
The upward trend from "Mr. Know It All" continues with the intricately curious and spectacularly built "Dark Side", which drives home the point that Clarkson has a "Dark Side" herself. The song begins with a haunting music box melody building into a gothic big beat bridge and then into a briefly powerful dance-beat driven hook before going back to the music box for rebuilding.
"Honestly" continues to explore the dark depths, revealing the raw, emotionally vulnerable
side of the singer that we saw on "My December" with one clear difference: this is probably the first time we hear her hint of sheer desperation as she tells you that you can tell her anything as long as you have the courage to say it to her face. If you want to know what Kelly Clarkson is all vocally, "Honestly" definitely is a great starter point if you can get past the raw and shocking honest lyrics behind this deeply dark song.
For those who loved Kelly's grrrl rock with a healthy helping of sass, the fast paced "Einstein" should do the trick. The electric guitar and rock drum-fueled tell-off anthem brings on the unique element of relationship math ("Our love divided by the square root of pride...It was heavy when I finally figured it out") which in the end equals "Dumb plus dumb equals you". This is not a track for Kelly's male fans to seemingly listen to.
"Standing In Front of You" is a welcome respite from the raw and dark emotion from the first six tracks as Clarkson showcases the more comforting and reassuring side of her. It's good to see that based on her previous material that she is as capable staying in her rich lower range for an entire song as she is showcasing the big vocals on her more emotional charged songs. Also "Standing In Front of You" shows off a bit of the soul from her pre-My December days.
"I Forgive You" on the outside comes off a radio-friendly, standard pop hit on forgiveness but in reality, is a portrait of self-deprecating sarcasm ("I forgive you, and I forgive me/Now when do I start to feel again.") as she sings about how both sides have made mistakes and that all parties are forgiven, including herself and that its actually time to part separate ways. The well-layered choral line is one to listen to.
"Hello" comes off as a curiously bi-polar guitar and clap driven song, another growing part of Kelly's rep. While the musical arrangement reeks of happiness and positive vibes, the lyrics are anything but as it depicts the subject as feeling lonely, even in a large group of people. Vocally though, "Hello" is one of her best on the album.
"The War Is Over" is another post-breakup song but not in the same vein as the first six tracks. The pure anger from the post-breakup themed tunes from the beginning of the album is replaced with a surprisingly heartfelt but equally raw and charged emotion all wrapped up in a subtly swelling musical arrangement. Honest lyrics (I won't let you pull me in cuz I know you're gonna win/But the war is over/I won't fight you anymore/I never been so sure) about ending the difficult post-relationship uncertainty and moving on furthers the subtle but emotional power of the song.
"Let Me Down" offers a highly charged and yet cynical view where the subject is aware they know they should not let
someone into their lives because they always end up leaving but just cannot help themselves. Lyrics like "I am too smart to let you in here, but I'm just dumb enough to linger" drive home that very point. The musical arrangement of spooky guitar echo lines and minor piano chords helps to fuel the raw and sheer cynicism of the song's objective.
"You Can't Win" is a rare and biting social commentary themed tune offering a pretty bleak view of the trappings of the celebrity life with some of the best lyrics on the album:
"If you're thin, poor little walking disease
If you're not, they're all screaming obese
If you're straight, why aren't you married yet?
If you're gay, why aren't you waving a flag?"
The standard edition of "Stronger" ends with a fitting power ballad "Breaking Your Own Heart" which satisfies the division of her fanbase that seek out her power-filled take on the pop ballad.
If you are lucky enough to get the deluxe edition (4 bonus tracks), make sure to listen to "Don't Wanna Stay", a country chart-topping country-pop ballad with country superstar Jason Aldean that shows a clear glimpse where Kelly would like to tread into the near future.
Overall "Stronger" isn't groundbreaking but it is one that gives her fans something to lap up while she gears up for what appears to be her attempt at finally going more country. There's something in "Stronger" that everyone wants, from the power pop ballad at the end to the raw and highly charged emotion from the start of the album to the more comforting and reassuring side and in all that, manages to show some new wrinkles like in "You Can't Win" and the surefire dance-floor hit "Stronger". All in all, Kelly Clarkson has proved once again with this spectacularly built effort that she is still a force to be reckoned with in the pop-rock arena and further drives home the point that no matter what Carrie, Scotty, both Davids and other Idol alums do, Kelly Clarkson is STILL the original American Idol that everyone is ultimately chasing down.