Kelly Clarkson's 'All I Ever Wanted': 3.5 stars [UPDATE]
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.
Anyone who's been to a Clarkson show and seen the earnest love her female fans express knows this is where her work goes beyond entertainment to affect lives. Without uttering the word "feminism," she applies its principles within pop formulas now more often used to sell peep-show thrills, greed and cynicism.
Clarkson works her every-superwoman magic within a few different phone booths here. She removes the cartoon mannerisms from two songs co-penned by Katy Perry; her version of "I Do Not Hook Up," a song cowritten by Kara DioGuardi and produced by modern rock heavy Howard Benson, should be heard by every teen girl contemplating chucking her purity ring.
Her collaborations, including several cowrites, with mood-rock hit maker Ryan Tedder take the opposite approach. They insinuate instead of shouting, showing how the self-described "limestone rock" sound Coldplay perfected with Brian Eno can work as a vehicle for feminine yearning. The albums' sequencing presents the quieter Tedder material as a mini-suite, resulting in an energy drag; that's too bad, because individually considered, each track is gently memorable.
Pop addicts looking for fizzier stuff will prefer the work Clarkson did with former Color Me Badd member Sam Watters and his partner Louis Biancaniello, including some covers of tunes by Oklahoma-based unknowns Aranda. The title track evokes the soul-rock fusions of Timbaland and Rihanna, while "Whyyouwannabringmedown" gives Clarkson a chance to howl the way she's wanted to since her grunge-loving teen years.
"All I Ever Wanted" also has a couple of the old-fashioned tear-jerkers that Clarkson does so well -- "Cry," which she cowrote, and songbird Keri Noble's "If No One Will Listen," which she produced -- and an apparent Pink tribute song, "Don't Let Me Stop You."
The album is a generous helping of the Kelly so many love -- yes, Photoshopped and slicked up, but with her big, brilliantly accessible heart and voice intact.
"All I Ever Wanted"
Three and a half stars
Photo credit: Getty Images
Albums are rated on a four star scale.
UPDATE: An earlier version of this post identified "All I Ever Wanted" as Clarkson's third album. It is her fourth.