Kelly Clarkson - Stronger
Nine producers! Count ‘em. Kelly Clarkson’s fifth album wobbles under the weight of its hefty manufacture. As if that army of knob twiddlers wasn’t quite enough – and just how hard can it be to slop a layer of crunching, programmed proto-rawk over every damn track? – this an album that ain’t taking any chances. 17 songs. Thank god it's no sharp, left-field slab of MOR. Coming back to it in a decade or more for a deluxe re-issue, you’d be truly buggered for a 2nd disc of off-cuts. “You want more? There ain’t no more! How much more can there be?” screech the horde of studio tricksters summoned to bring the once bright spark of Kelly’s young talent back to flickering life.
Such a shame, of course, but Stronger is hard work - needlessly flabby, haplessly over-cooked and prone to bursts of unforgiveable tedium. After all that initial promise, Kelly slumps to a shameful 3rd on the all time talent show list. The original American Idol has been at it for longer than both but she shifts uncomfortably at the foot of the podium beneath Will Young and Girls Aloud. You wouldn’t want that on your epitaph, would you? It’s all her own fault, though, right? If she hadn’t shown the ambition and candour that led to the startling My December, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. But Kelly Clarkson gave us a peek behind the all-American girl, shone black light on the apple pie and mommy wholesome-ness and even had a pop at RCA overloard Clive Davis when he demanded something more commercial. “It’s not exactly Metallica,” she responded, pouring scorn on the naysayers. Suddenly the promise of breakthrough album Breakaway (still a tremendously smart, wholly likeable blast of soulful pop-rock by any standards) came alive in a surprising and brave direction. But when the majority of the fan-base gave a collective “Bleurghh” and it went on to sell about a dozen copies, Kelly Clarkson did what so many stars caught out by their own blind ambition do: she slumped in defeat and packed her darkling visons away.
Subsequent album All I Ever Wanted was almost embarrassingly approachable with its day-glo packaging and moronic lead single (‘My Life Would Suck Without U’.) Hey, no-one’s expecting fire and brimstone every time, Kelly, and let’s be frank rather than damning: this over-worked hotch-potch doesn't misfire completely. Amidst the clatter of epic, overblown ballads and lumpen grooves, the odd gem shines through. ‘Mr Know It All’ is a smart showcase for that voice, playing loose with the arrangement, offering space to breathe. But, seriously, staring now at a list of songs longer than not just your arm, my arm and the Angel of the bloody North’s arm, picking out another highlight becomes just too much of a trial. Forgive me, but there was a slow one early on that had a cracking chorus and a soft ballad near the end (just under three hours in) pierced the torpor temporarily. Average number of names after each song: four. Jeez. Have fun trying to work out whether it means anything if “Clarkson” appears first in the bracket or last. But recognise that this is what you get when you assemble records on such a horribly efficient production line, dulling youthful sheen and forcing cynical old bastards like me into tiresome mockery when I should be lauding someone who remains, despite all of this, an exceptionally gifted singer.
Stronger (note the blandly inoffensive title) conforms too easily but is hardly a complete disaster; it’s not exactly offensive or unlistenable. But, to paraphrase her own words from what seems like oh so long ago, it’s not exactly Kelly Clarkson, either.