With her fifth studio album, Kelly Clarkson has created a stellar collection of pop music with clear country, rhythm and blues and dance influences. Exploring themes of heartbreak, forgiveness and strength, Clarkson’s signature soul is always present and Stronger is a deeply satisfying album. It is no secret that I am a super-fan. Everyone who knows me personally is aware of my obsessive fandom. I recently declared my passion for all things Kelly professionally with my Top 10 Reasons to Worship the Ultimate Pop-Goddess blog. Naturally, I felt compelled to take some time to review her latest offering and thought it best to really break it down with a track-by-track review.
Mr. Know It All
This mid-tempo number blasts the media and public en masse who continuously presume to know what Clarkson is all about. This was an interesting choice to release as a lead single, and I give her credit for putting something different out there. The music video released for this song shows that you don’t have to be provocative or suggestive to be effective. Instead, Clarkson has opted for newspaper articles with bogus headlines plastering the walls behind her while she vents her frustrations with a wink and a smile.
What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger)
For those eager for more “Since U Been Gone” or “My Life Would Suck Without You” type anthems, this is it my friends. If Clarkson is looking for a smash-hit, she needs to get this track to radio, stat! Its thumping, electro-pop beat and Kelly’s impeccable voice, makes this an irresistible dance hit. I challenge anyone to not feel empowered by a chorus that includes, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger/Stand a little taller/Doesn’t mean I’m lonely when I’m alone.” Just one listen and you’ll be hooked – and, if you’re anything like me, also completely unable to stop bouncing around and bopping your head.
This track is reminiscent of her My December-days. Clarkson comes across as beautifully vulnerable, pleading with a lover to accept her fully, flaws and all. She implores, “Everybody’s got a dark side/Do you love me/Can you love mine/Nobody’s picture perfect/But we’re worth it/You know that we’re worth it/Will you love me/Even with my dark side?” Kelly has mentioned that this song almost didn’t make the final track list for the album (she finds the material depressing and thinks her catalogue already has enough songs with a similar tone), and I’m so happy she didn’t go with her gut instinct on this one. The outcome is lovely.
Girl knows how to kill it when it comes to ballads, and this track is a shining example. The song’s soaring chorus sent shivers down my spine upon my first listen (and second, third, fourth…). The tone is a little solemn, but it’s a solid track.
You Love Me
My favourite track on the album! “You didn’t let me down/You didn’t tear me apart/You just opened my eyes while breaking my heart/You didn’t do it for me/I’m not as dumb as you think/You just made me cry by claiming that you love me.” Pair these lyrics with an 80’s-esque dance rhythm and roaring guitars, and you’ve got pop perfection. The version included on The Smoakstack Sessions EP (available through her official website) is also pretty spectacular. If this track isn’t a single, her management team needs to be fired (and replaced by ME).
The best thing I can say is this song is super-fun and catchy. Critics have given her a really hard time over the (admittedly silly) lyrics. But really, who cares? She sounds great (and it’s fun to shake your rear to)! I’m cool with it. Although I understand that many can’t get beyond, “I may not be Einstein/But I know dumb plus dumb equals you.” If this is the weakest link, I don’t think you can ask for much more out of an album.
Standing In Front of You
Stronger’s most mild track so far, Standing In Front of You is the kind of song that fans of her ballad-heavy beginnings will eat up. Soft, pretty and melodic, she brings it.
I Forgive You
Another song that could be an instant-hit if released because I Forgive You plays out like a follow-up to one of her past breakup songs. The track is all about purging the remnants of heartbreak after the healing is complete. Anyone who has known the pain of a broken heart and the clarity that eventually follows will appreciate this.
Another personal favourite of mine, Hello makes me want to jump up and down and never stop clapping my hands together! A foot-tapper with a super-upbeat rhythm, this is going to RULE when she sings it live in concert! There are definite moments of Sheryl Crow/Dixie Chicks influenced inflections, but overall this is classic Clarkson and I'm loving it!
The War Is Over
This ditty tells the story of retreating from the post-breakup battlefield to assess the damage and pick up the pieces. It’s at once reflective and powerful, and her fierce vocals make it an instant delight. It can potentially have many lyrical meanings, be it an ex-boyfriend or someone who has wronged her professionally – or personally. Whichever way you interpret it doesn’t matter – her passion shines through and her strength prevails.
Let Me Down
This is a distinct highlight on the album. If released (which it should be because radio is where this song belongs), there will undoubtedly be comparisons to Pink (who hasn’t released any new material since 2008). But that doesn’t mean Kelly doesn’t kill it with this one. She’s candid and not embarrassed to admit that sometimes her judgement isn’t the best: “I am too smart to let you in here/But I’m just dumb enough to linger.” Ohh girrrrl, we’ve all been there!
You Can’t Win
Confession: I like to blast music while I shower. I’m actually afraid of getting hurt while listening to this one because much like Hello, it makes me want to jump up and down and I don't have one of those anti-slip rubber mats. I think the time has come to invest in one. This will be a huge hit on the road – a true crowd pleaser. Sample lyrics: “If you're thin/Poor little walking disease/If you're not/They're all screaming obese/If you're straight/Why aren't you married yet?/If you're gay/Why aren't you waving a flag?” We hear ya, Kelly – living up to the expectation of others is often a losing battle.
Breaking Your Own Heart
I’m not a betting man, but I would wager that if this song were released to country radio today, Clarkson would have a number one hit on those charts by the New Year. I think this song is proof-positive that Clarkson is destined to release a country album. Her voice is so versatile she can sing whatever she wants, and she’s already proven these chops via duets with some of the best country artists in the business (Reba McEntire & Jason Aldean, the latter of whom she just won a CMA Award with for their smash hit, Don’t You Wanna Stay). Let’s make this happen, Kelly.
Kelly has also released a Deluxe Edition of this album with four additional tracks, the aformentioned Don't You Wanna Stay being one of them.