Kelly Clarkson - My December
You can see why the record company weren’t keen. After the success of 2004’s ‘Breakaway, an album that went on to top the two million mark in the UK alone, Kelly Clarkson retreated from the spotlight to ruminate on her new found stardom and the increasingly ugly trappings of fame. She has not, it would seem, been lying on the beach happily counting the dollars. ‘My December’, an enraged, brutal, difficult record will need some overtime from the marketing department if those Christmas bonuses are to continue. It’s predecessor was a significantly friendlier beast. The pointers were there of course : one manager duly sacked prior to release, repeated slagging off of label RCA (“These people have no soul”, she commented after refusing their request to promote new single ‘Never Again’ on a recent TV charity show) and a showdown with record company boss Clive Davis after it became clear her disinclination to provide ‘Breakaway’ Pt 2 had not gone down well with the suits. The label wanted sales and nudged her to work with guaranteed hit-makers to deliver an upbeat collection of pop-rock anthems. Her refusal, and desire to document her troubles, is good news for fans. Those of you put off ‘Breakaway’ by, granted, the faint smell of The Machine will have little cause for similar complaint here.
‘My December’, a piquant, pointed title for this sombre collection, asks much of the listener. Casual fans, previously drawn in by the driving rock of ‘Since U Been Gone’, the dark balladry of ‘Because of You', will find it … a bit much. Opener ‘Never Again’, a jaggedy re-assembling of the ‘SUBG’ template, at least suggests that we’re in the same ballpark. ‘One Minute’, the album’s most obviously commercial moment, with its nods to Roxette, heaven help us, might give the doubters faint hope. By the time the whiplash nihilism of third track, ‘Hole’, with a riff that Sonic Youth surely patented, comes spitting into view, those who like their music dinner party-friendly will be choking on the Pinot. “There’s a hole, Inside of me, It’s so damn cold, Slowly killing me” isn’t going to put a smile on too many faces. From then on, the changes come thick and fast and it’s a heady thrill to say the least. ‘Sober’, trumpeted by fans for the past year, is a marvellous brooding throb, a slow quiet build-up before catching fire. ‘Judas’ does metronomic rock in the Placebo mould. ‘Can I Have a Kiss’ belies its cutesy title and, for an album with notably few examples of anything vaguely ‘catchy’, delivers its biggest hook. The jerky off-beats of ‘Yeah’ confound and delight. Best of all is ‘Maybe’, a supremely unsettling study of pleading obsession played out on acoustic guitar before exploding into desperate life.
One applauds the endeavour and the direction. Hell, a 25 year old former waitress from Texas who won a TV talent show didn’t necessarily have to do things like this. The record company-preferred route (Avril plastic punk ? Bedingfield pop ?) would surely have been a whole load of heartache easier. Whatever, our gain. Her subject matter, for the most part desperate longing and bilious fury, comes bolted to a rapidly maturing song-writing capability. On the surface, kudos even for not going down a design path informed by trendily stark graphics; the album cover, a sub-gothic arrangement, the singer slumped in red taffeta at the bottom of a crumbling spiral staircase, recalls that other brilliantly individual but troubled mainstream female, Stevie Nicks. More importantly, the voice, of course, is a marvel. What makes it even more admirable is the restraint and modesty its owner shows in her handling of such an instrument. She could surely trill up and down the octaves for fun but holds it thrillingly in check, with the odd glimpse of what it can really do. During the climax of ‘Sober’ she leaps for an upper register we’ve not seen before. On the candle-lit hymnal album closer ‘Irvine’, where her icy delivery recalls Dusty Springfield, just voice and a guitar combine to chilling effect.
So, a surprise but hardly a shock. Those of us who hoped she had the savvy and the daring, success firmly in the bag, to turn left, can nod appreciatively and feel vindicated and a little bit smug. Fair play to Kelly Clarkson; her December is long, hard and cold. Amongst the world-weary observation, glimmers of hope flesh out and colour the overriding tone. The combination of youthful outpouring and wise reflection is a welcome and convincing mix. ‘My December’ is a challenge for the listener, an achievement of magnitude for the artist and an electrifying reminder that things, thank god, are not always what they seem.