“Piece by Piece” by Kelly Clarkson

Kelly Clarkson’s albums after her breakthrough masterpiece Breakaway are all underrated in one way or another, and this one is no exception. It has a flaw…a fairly obvious one…and that has made a number of both amateur and professional critics dismiss it entirely. The flaw in question is the heavily electronic production style, which does not fit well with either Clarkson’s distinctive voice nor with her style of songwriting, and which, along with a poor choice of lead single, led many to unfairly consign this album to the dust heap without a second thought.

The album was clearly meant as an attempt to emulate Taylor Swift’s massive hit album 1989 the year before. I wouldn’t call it a rip-off by any means, as it has plenty of distinctive qualities of its own, but it definitely bears Swift’s influence, not only in the Electro-Pop sound but in its conceptual structure. This is another Pop concept album from the era when they became popular again, only instead of a miniature musical like Swift’s album, this record is designed to resemble a late-Nineties/early 2000s-era movie soundtrack (the two specific models Clarkson cited in interviews were the soundtracks to Cruel Intentions and Love Actually).

But in spite of the awkward choice of production style, there is one aspect of this album that redeems it and elevates it to masterpiece status: the songwriting. Clarkson also claimed in interviews that she wanted to create an album where every track could potentially have been a hit, and my God, she pulled it off. This is perhaps the most unrelentingly intense album of Clarkson’s career, but at the same time it is far more polished than her last record, Stronger. These grandiose hooks and searing emotions are sufficient to burn through the haze of the electronic production and land with the impact of an atomic bomb.

The album’s title track, which became its biggest and most recognizable hit, is one of Clarkson’s most personal songs, a scathing indictment of her own father, who abandoned her and her family only to come back and try to leech money off her after she became famous (this seems to be something of a pattern for deadbeat dads of Pop Stars, as Demi Lovato’s father attempted the exact same thing). But while Lovato wrote a whole series of songs dedicated to her painful relationship with her father, Clarkson really only directly addressed it in this one song. In it, she explains how her husband (Reba McEntire’s stepson Brandon Blackstock) finally restored her faith in men and fatherhood after her father’s betrayal almost destroyed it. It’s easily one of the two or three best songs she ever released, and serves as the album’s emotional centerpiece.

The other two high points on the album are “Dance With Me”, perhaps the most sweepingly irresistible dance ballad of the entire current decade, and “I Had a Dream”, an indictment of the current generation’s hypocrisy set to the sound of marching boots. I admit that I was inclined to defend Katy Perry’s “Chained to the Rhythm”, which deals with essentially the same subject, but I readily acknowledge that “I Had a Dream” is twenty times the song “Chained to the Rhythm” will ever be.

Similarly, “Run Run Run” (a duet with R&B giant John Legend) could give “Somebody That I Used To Know” a run for its money in the “two-sided deconstructions of a failed relationship” category. The glowing “Take You High” is one of the most epic declarations of love in modern Pop music, resembling Lady Gaga’s “The Cure” on steroids. And “Someone” was using the turn of phrase “Sorry I’m not sorry” a full year before Beyonce made it famous, and indeed was very possibly a major inspiration for Beyonce’s hit.

But really, as I said, this is one of those rare Pop albums where literally every track had real single potential, which makes it surprising that they chose the lukewarm “Heartbeat Song” as the lead single. This song features the same big choruses as the rest of the album, but without any of the sincerity…its attempts at intensity seem phoned-in and artificial, and it was literally the worst choice they could have made to represent the album.

It also seems decidedly odd that the album’s second single, the ultra-intense anthem of hard-won triumph “Invincible”, never even cracked the Hot 100, let alone the Top Forty. In retrospect, this might have something to do with another, much less interesting song with the same subject matter, Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song”, being a hit around the time of its release. I’ve never really understood the antipathy many Pop listeners seem to hold toward “Fight Song”, but I will admit I soured on it quite a bit when I realized it had effectively kept “Invincible” off the Pop charts.

Overall, I’d be inclined to call this Clarkson’s best album since Breakaway. I’ve always thought Pop music critics pay far too much attention to production…as if the arrangement mattered more than the song itself. Having cut my critical teeth in the world of Musical Theater, where the arrangement is comparatively unimportant, I tend to be much more focused on composition and performance, and on both those fronts, this album is beyond reproach.

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