Judgement Day: Pop Heaven or Hell? (Kelly Clarkson / “Stronger”)

Kelly Clarkson – Stronger
Released: October 24, 2011 Worldwide! (Purchase it on iTunes: Standard / Deluxe)

THE SHORT: “Stronger” is a powerhouse set that manages to blend soul, country, dance, pop and rock into a cohesive album referencing Kelly’s past eras and venturing into throwback territory with a strong 80’s and 90’s influence. While it has big shoes to fill, and I’ve always asserted that “My December” is Kelly’s masterpiece, “Stronger” is, hands down, Clarkson’s best overall album to date.

(For track by track reactions and previews of several album tracks you can check out the long version after the break…)

THE LONG (I’m not kidding, I’m long winded and if there is one person this guy can ‘fangirl’ over, it’s Saint Kellegend: Our Lady of Broken Hearts)

From the opening notes, “Mr Know It All” immediately registers as light years better than the single mix with only a few subtle differences. The presence of some piano and strings really adds something to the track and makes one wonder who thought those musical elements weren’t radio friendly enough. Perhaps it sounds a tad more adult contemporary, but it’s beautiful and infuses the track with more emotion. As the lead single, it hasn’t seemed to garner the attention I truly believe it deserves. It may not seem like the the most obvious choice on the album for a lead single, but don’t underestimate the sheer power of this song to grab you by the brain stem and never let go. I may be off base here, but this (like a few other tracks that will be discussed later) has an air of country-pop to it and could easily be remixed for country radio. (I’m not basing this entirely on her use of the lyric “ain’t it somthin’ y’all” but that helps).

What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger)” is the title track and the already-confirmed second single. It’s hard to pick a strong point of this track because every aspect of it is mindblowingly amazing. As the title suggests, this is a pure empowerment anthem. From the opening line “You know the bed feels warmer, sleeping here alone..” this song reveals it’s a triple threat; Kelly’s vocals are flawless and powerful, and the perfect lyric soars unenhanced among a brilliantly produced flood of electronic instrumental layers. Genre-wise, like 50% of the album, “Stronger” falls somewhere between electro-pop, dance and rock. Hear for yourself..

The opening notes of the third track; “Dark Side” sound a bit like a music box. When the throbbing beat enters it brings with it a more vulnerable Kelly asking the object of her affection if she can feel safe to reveal her inner darkness to them without fearing rejection. If there is one word to describe “Dark Side” it would be LUSH. Like “Stronger” this track has multi-layered electronic production. An album standout, Kelly herself has said it will likely be a single and I suspect many fans would support that as this track is painfully beautiful in its balance of strength and vulnerability and has everything going for it to be a commercial hit.

Honestly” is the kind of song we may have heard on an album like “Breakaway” or “All I Ever Wanted” but embraces the rock-edge of “My December”. Despite these comparisons, the layered atmospheric production definitely makes it fit the overall vibe of this era in her career. It needs to be said that “Honestly” is the most powerful and goosebump worthy of the album and will undoubtedly be a fan favorite. This is one of the first traces of the second major musical trend in this set which harkens back to pop-rock of the 1980’s and early 90’s.

Before you start groaning (Music Snob Voice: “Ugh, everyone is trying to be all 80’s/90’s”) I would just like to elaborate on my statement and say that Clarkson is doing 80’s throwback in a way that has not been done in the recent wave of 80’s love. “Honestly” is more in the vein of 1985-Heart-meets-2011 than the 80’s synthpop movement that has been re-created so much in recent years. Do you hear it?

Next up; “You Love Me” channels more great 80’s tracks like “Little Lies” by Fleetwood Mac or any number of songs by Eurythmics. Kelly’s vocal on this track is fierce, soulful and strong. She asserts on the extremely memorable hook “You didn’t let me down, you didn’t tear me apart, you just opened my eyes while breaking my heart..”, The only slight weakness in the song is on the bridge, where the melody of the first three lines is a tad (a trifle!) underwhelming before Kelly comes in with a growl and explodes into the songs climax. After repeated listens, my distaste for the bridge has worn off and I think “You Love Me” stands to be my favorite track on the album. While I think it may be a bit risky as a single, Kelly has said in interviews that it is one of the best songs she believes she has written and I have a feeling it may be in the running. Check it out…

Einstein” seems to be one track that divides certain listeners. While production-wise it’s rock influenced, format wise it is pure pop.The track uses a lot of wordplay to explore a somewhat mathematical metaphor about the complications of a relationship gone wrong. Leaked early in demo form, the track was dubbed “Dumb + Dumb = You” which is one of the main lines in the hook, but don’t be alarmed; in the heat of the moment the track does not sound nearly as corny as that line would make you think. Despite a moderate cheese factor, “Einstein” is cleverly worded, brilliantly performed and catchy as hell but some may argue that maybe it just doesn’t seem “Kelly” enough.

Which brings us, at last, to the album’s first ballad: “Standing In Front of You“. Instrumentation-wise, it is reminiscent of Annie Lennox’s “Why” which I often find myself singing to myself as I listen to it. Vocally, however, it is rather subdued and doesn’t have the soul of the Lennox classic. The track has a sweet, dreamy quality and while not blatant, does carry a bit of the previously mentioned 80’s vibe. (For those of you that may have checked out the many leaks that plagued this release, the final album version of this song has come a LONG way from the demo version.) This song is a grower, both in it’s appreciation value and in it’s overall sound.  As the song progresses, the vocal and musical layers build and build but for me – never really hit a WOW moment. Not a standout track by any means, it is very beautiful, innocent and muted and ultimately a nice break from all of the big attitude we’ve been experiencing thus far on the album.

I feel it appropriate to admit that nearly everytime I listen to “I Forgive You” my eyes fill up with tears as someone who has lived through a drag out relationship and found the strength to forgive and recognize my own contributions to its downfall. The track brings the tempo back up and is a powerful, pop-rock monster with a soaring vocal melody reminiscent of “Breakaway” era Kelly or P!nk’s “Who Knew”, but with more of the multi-layered electronic production seen across this album. While I’m not certain it’s on the radar as a potential single (it’s possible it may sound a tad too “2004”), I do believe it could be one of Kelly’s biggest hits to date if pop radio moves a little bit away from dance trends during the albums promotional campaign. Listen!

Hello” is a sassy, soulful pop-rock track that is about the struggle of knowing that you’re in many ways better off alone but still lonely and wanting to know that there is someone out there for you. After about a week of repeated listening to the album (and you can take this to mean pretty much 24/7 repeated listening), I have begun to take on more of a liking to this song. While it doesn’t pack the emotional punch that the majority of the tracks do, it’s really rather catchy and her vocals are very impressive. (There is also a pretty kick-ass stripped down version on her Smoakstack Sessions EP).

With the next track, Kelly enters even more epic territory. It’s one of those tracks that remind me of something I can’t quite put my finger on. Definitely working a 90’s pop-rock kind of vibe, “The War Is Over” provides one of the most triumphant moments on the album. The beat is powerful and inspiring, building more and more with each rise and fall in the song structure. Lyrically it documents someone who has passed their breaking point and has come to peace with knowing this is finally the end of a turbulent relationship, knowing that they can now walk away unscathed. (“I won’t fight you anymore, I’ve never been so sure, ’cause the war is over..”) Listen below…

Sonically, “Let Me Down” is probably the most “My December” of the tracks on “Stronger” but is decidely more commercial sounding than most of that album. Imagine that a track from “My December” had a song baby with a track from “All I Ever Wanted” and that would be a close comparison. Originally rumored to be the first single before it leaked, it definitely has hit potential but with mainstream radio failing to produce a lot of rock hits currently, changing the single was probably strategic and not just because of the early leak. Still, it is definitely among the many shining moments of the album and contains some of the biggest vocals.

You Can’t Win” outlines the plight of nearly anyone in the public eye, but is easily relateable to anyone. Under the scrutiny of the media and the public, celebrities are constantly criticized for their weight, their appearance, their political views (or lack thereof) and their personal lives. The track makes a number of bold but very true statements about how, when you’re in the spotlight, you just can’t please everyone and contains some of my favorite lyrics on the entire album, including my favorite line: “If you’re straight, why aren’t you married yet? If you’re gay, why aren’t you wavin’ a flag? You can’t win.. no..” Musically, it’s an uptempo rock track in the vein of something P!nk might record, or maybe a little like “One of the Boys” era Katy Perry, but make no mistake it is 100% Kelly and doesn’t come off as a knock-off of any other artist.

Slowing it down once again, “Breaking Your Own Heart” very easily wins the best ballad award for this album and is in close contention for my personal favorite. A song about realizing that you’re so afraid to get hurt that you’re sabotaging your own happiness, this track feels very much like it was intended for the country album that she was rumored to be working on before it took a more electronic twist. A somewhat subdued and heartfelt vocal, paired with a great guitar solo on the bridge and breathtaking harmonies and strings make this song a sure bet to tug on your heartstrings and if you’re anything like me, sob like a huge baby and contemplate how one can often stand in their own way without realizing it.

If you purchase the deluxe edition (and I really hope you do because there’s so much good still to come) then next you should be hearing the hit duet Kelly released this year with country singer/songwriter Jason Aldean; “Don’t You Wanna Stay“. If you haven’t heard this track, it’s an absolutely beautiful song about having a magical moment with someone and not wanting it to end. The two sound fantastic singing together and this song sounds surprisingly cohesive due to the inclusion of other tracks (some previously mentioned) that have a certain country-pop swagger to them.

Alone” brings back the retro vibe in a big way. Being a child of the 80’s, the synths and vocal arrangements really create a sense of nostalgia but at no point feel dated. This is another track that sounds very familiar to me but I can’t quite put my finger on a point of comparison. The synths feel a little bit (but not quite) Roxette. Somehow Kelly and her production team have managed to make the parts of the 80’s and 90’s that most artists won’t touch feel very current and cool, and I am loving it!

I’ll admit that I am a bit conflicted about “Don’t Be A Girl About It“. The overall message of this song, though I’m sure it’s without intent, is a bit awful. The idea that a sensitive man is equated to acting like “a little girl” only serves to enforce gender stereotypes on both sides but based on my knowledge of Kelly, I’m confident it was never intended in that way and it’s meant to just be sarcastic bit of fun. Still, though I find the lyrical content the tiniest bit concerning and I honestly despised the leaked demo, I find myself really enjoying the album version everytime it’s playing. The track is MAD infectious and another of the power pop-rock tracks, so I’ll forgive the questionable politics and sing along whilst tapping my slightly hesitant toe.

Before you dive into the beauty that is “The Sun Will Rise“, I will warn you – no, Kelly hasn’t developed some vocal alter ego, this song is an uncredited duet. The second voice that you’re hearing is none other than singer/songwriter and former American Idol judge; Kara Dioguardi. This song also sounds like it came from the rumored country project and feels a bit like a Dixie Chicks crossover track. While I don’t dislike Kara’s voice, I do think the song would have been better without her because vocally the two ladies aren’t very well suited to eachother in my opinion. The beauty of the song itself, however, makes it stand out for me on the album. (For those who agree that it would be better as a solo, check out Kelly’s Smoakstack sessions EP for a wonderful stripped down version, Kelly only).

And lastly, for those of you who bought the deluxe itunes edition, we have the one missing piece, the SOUL ballad. “Why Don’t You Try” harkens back to the Kelly we marvelled over as she crooned out Aretha Franklin classics back in Season 1 of American Idol. It also represents the soulful vocals found on many of the album’s up-tempo tracks and brings them to a head in ballad form. Despite all of the vocal acrobatics, it also feels like it could have appeared on a country-pop record from a bluesy perspective and is a shining vocal moment for Kelly but feels the slightest bit out of place. That being said, however, bonus tracks often do.

IN CONCLUSION: A concept album of sorts, “Stronger” explores the different sides of being “strong”. Some have criticized that there is too much vulnerability on this record and that it contradicts its title and concept. The flaw in these criticisms is that to be “strong” does not necessarily mean to have zero weaknesses. While the majority of “Stronger” consists of empowerment anthems, how could any one expect Saint Kellegend: Our Lady of Broken Hearts to not deliver some heart-wrench? Face it: we would have missed the sad stuff!

Strength comes in many forms, and can sometimes be a facade to a deeper weakness, but learning to know and embrace those fears and insecurities and always strive to rise above and learn from them makes us “Stronger”.

This album gets our pass through the pearly gates into Pop Heaven! (Just in case the last 2500 words of gushing praise didn’t clue you in.)

Please note: Full-length previews were unfortunately unavailable for every track, but check out the following snippets if you find yourself craving more!

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