“Stronger” by Kelly Clarkson

Given that this album produced two huge pop hits and won a Grammy for Best Pop Album, it gets surprisingly little attention as an album, even by mainstream pop standards. Of course, when this happens to acts like Rihanna or Katy Perry, it’s obviously because they don’t make albums in the traditional sense of the word, and the ‘albums’ they do make generally consist of a few potential singles and a lot of transparent filler material. But Kelly Clarkson is a genuine album artist, and this album was actually a stunning return to form after the disappointingly uneven All I Ever Wanted, so it seems a terrible injustice that this album should be so blatantly ignored.

In reality, this is actually a very dark and heavy album, much more intense and emotional than the relentlessly pop-heavy All I Ever Wanted. Unfortunately, Pop listeners generally have no idea of this because the album’s hits…the vaguely Country-flavored “Mr. Know It All”, the propulsive “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)”, and the Jason Aldean duet “Don’t You Wanna Stay” (added to this album as a bonus track) are much lighter and more pop-friendly than the rest of the material.

That’s not to say they aren’t fine songs in their own way. “Mr. Know-It-All” features a strong melody and some gloriously raw powerhouse vocals from Clarkson, although the clumsy lyrics do hinder it a bit. The title track song is admittedly something of a walking cliché, but it’s also a terrific, pulse-pounding piece of music that shows off her voice spectacularly, and easily her best single since “My Life Would Suck Without You”. And “Don’t You Wanna Stay” is an impressively sweeping power ballad, with a sound much more characteristic of Clarkson’s usual work than that of Aldean.

The rest of the album, while it doesn’t lack for memorable hooks, is more a series of deeply felt emotional explorations than a string of pop tunes. There are a number of other defiant breakup songs besides the title-track, including “You Love Me”, “Let Me Down”, and “The War Is Over”, but they tend to be less upbeat and more powerfully angry in the vein of her early classics like “Since U Been Gone” and “Never Again”, and their lyrics tend to be far more penetrating than the self-help cliches found on the two hit singles. There are also a number of anguished love ballads, like “Dark Side”, “Honestly” and “Standing in Front of You”, that reveal a desperate vulnerability and need to be loved underneath the defiant self-belief of the breakup songs. One of the most poignant items is the closing track, “Breaking Your Own Heart”, a devastating ballad in which Clarkson pleads with a self-destructive, life-denying love interest to let love back into their life.

This is very much an album about love and relationships, and pretty much the only song that strays from the topic of romance is “You Can’t Win”, a smartly-written complaint about life’s many Catch-22 dilemmas. Apart from the moronic novelty track “Einstein” (‘Dumb plus dumb equals you’), the songs are all excellent in their own right, but the fact that the album never lets up and offers no respite from the intense emotions after the first couple of tracks can make listening to it rather exhausting. Still, its very relentless intensity gives the album an odd kind of power, like a single key banged out over and over on the piano, and I suspect the album as a whole was always intended more as an emotional punch in the gut than a pleasantly conventional Pop album.

This album as a whole would probably be something of an acquired taste to the more casual Clarkson fans who know her mostly from her singles, but it earned that Grammy…the songs’ emotional intensity and honesty and the way Clarkson wholeheartedly hurls herself into the vocals really do make this one of the finest Pop albums of 2012.

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