Monday, March 2, 2015

Piece by Piece | Kelly Clarkson


★★★☆☆

"Some people wait a lifetime for a moment like this," a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Kelly Clarkson once sang. Who knew that nearly 13 years after that glorious moment, the product of a singing competition show would still be a staple of the music industry? The original American Idol hasn't released an album with new original material since 2011's Stronger, but she filled the four-year gap with a greatest hits compilation and a Christmas album. On her seventh studio album, Piece by Piece, Clarkson has dropped her popular break-up anthems in favor of showing a softer, loving side, most likely revealed by her new position as a mother.

While lead single "Heartbeat Song" was met with average reviews and lackluster commercial performance, it proves that Clarkson can still deliver a sufficient pop-rock track; the verses are driven by guitars and drums, and the chorus is drenched with swirling synthesizers. It was plugged as a genuine love song stemming from Clarkson's entrance to motherhood, but other songs override it in lyrical significance. The title track, one of the three songs that Clarkson co-wrote, is arguably her most introspective to date and is sure to resonate with many listeners. In it, she contrasts abandonment from her biological father to the love received from her step-father: "He restored my faith that a man can be kind and a father should be great."

In addition to many previous behind-the-scenes collaborators, Clarkson turned to one of the most notable songwriters of the past few years for assistance: Sia Furler. Luckily, unlike some artists, Clarkson actually possesses the vocal power to rip through Sia's demanding melodies. In particular, Clarkson stuns listeners on "Invincible" as she glides over the deep drums and Furler's web of backing vocals. Meanwhile, in terms of vocal features, Clarkson only collaborated on "Run Run Run" with John Legend, after she jokingly told BBC Radio 1's Nick Grimshaw that she would love to work with many people, "but everyone usually says no." Her vulnerable duet with Legend, which was originally recorded by Tokio Hotel, reveals vocal compatibility between the two as they sing, "And you waited on the rain / Through tears, my heart is caged / And we fall through fate / But we rise and rise again / And I run, run, run, run, run." 

Clarkson doesn't take risks often, but there is evidence on Piece by Piece that proves that she actually should. "Take You High" blasts Clarkson to euphoric heights; in the chorus, slashed vocal ad-libs are littered over soaring synthesizers and heavy drums, yet her vocal power isn't overshadowed by the production. Like many artists have recently, Clarkson also pays homage to '80s pop-rock in a track fittingly titled "Nostalgic." The driving production of the song could have been pulled directly from Betty Who's Take Me When You Go, but Clarkson works it as her own vocally as she sings of a bittersweet end to a relationship: "Even though we lost it, I still get nostalgic / Even if we want it, you can't turn back the hands of time."

By no means is Piece by Piece an example of revolutionary pop, but it should not be discredited, either. Despite Clarkson's claims of being influenced by country, R&B, and Broadway, the album is filled from start to finish with fresh pop-rock that she is best known for. She built an empire on radio-formatted, family-friendly tunes; her biggest hits are not ground-breaking, but they're enjoyable pieces nonetheless. Thanks to that mass appeal, Clarkson's career will soon outlive the show that launched it; Piece by Piece and album by album, she will continue to reign as an unshakable power in pop.

Piece by Piece will be released on March 3, 2015 under RCA Records and 19 Recordings. Standard and deluxe editions will be available.

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