The former 'American Idol' star is in her purest form on the new album.
The fourth album from pop's most sympathetic rebel girl, Kelly Clarkson, has nearly as many mandates attached to it as a certain economic stimulus plan.
The record label execs who objected to the emotionally loaded, tough-sell hard rock of 2007's "My December" are hoping for a massive, industry-saving hit. The critics who love her spunk but question her sensibility desire artful pop with a little bit of red meat. The "Idol" watchers and Top 40 listeners who made her a star in the first place want the perfect blend of sincerity and catchiness to lift their spirits during a year when nobody needs another breakup album.
Clarkson, ever the overachiever, has delivered on all counts. "All I Ever Wanted" is a masterful rapprochement with the mainstream, full of cheerfully ear-snagging tunes, inventive production, exhilarating vocals and enough inherent Kelly-ness to put aside fears that her label bosses implanted blond electrodes in her brain to make her behave.
"All I Ever Wanted" -- due March 10 but leaked online -- also fulfills the one requirement that makes Clarkson a top-shelf pop star worth loving: It provides her faithful female fans with a solid group of anthems and introspective moments expressing dignity, independence and emotional truthfulness.
The first single, the desperately radio-friendly "My Life Would Suck Without You," wasn't a good sign: Ripping off one's biggest previous hit isn't a path toward self-discovery. But that album opener simply announces a rousing, if slightly overloaded, collection of ballads and barn-burners well serving the needs of Kelly's girls for a big scream and a good cry.