All Kelly Clarkson ever wanted was to have it both ways, Ms. Independent and Miss Independent, a fame-shirking regular gal who just wants to play sold-out arenas. She's the most successful, and unlikely, player in American Idol history; if she hadn't won the first season, Randy Jackson would be shilling for Dial-a-Psychic by now. And yet, the 26-year-old is at heart a tomboy loner unafraid to chomp the hand that feeds.
Her fourth album, the new All I Ever Wanted, is a pivotal release, as it follows up 2007 stinker My December, which was broody pet-project proof that maybe Clarkson can't have it both ways. More angry than catchy, its lukewarm reception killed a major arena tour, a ding to her career. My December was her poorest-seller yet — although it eventually went platinum, testament to a fan base that adores her muffin-topped realness in a peroxide sea of models with record deals.
So now what? With label heads craving more Since U Been Gone, her best and biggest hit, and Clarkson coming off a liberating DIY tour with give-'em-hell pal Reba McEntire, which way would the singer go? The answer, it turns out, is both ways — but with a great, God-given twist.
Clarkson, who once told me she'd rather race ATVs in Texas than hobnob in Hollywood, is well tressed and air brushed on the cover of All I Ever Wanted. She looks great, relevant, even hot — and I bet she hates it. And although she writes seven of the new tracks, the hits (and get ready for a ton of 'em) are guest-penned by such pop tastemakers as Katy "I Kissed a Girl" Perry, producer Max "Since U Been Gone" Martin and Kara "A Fourth Judge? What Was I Thinking?" DioGuardi.
But for all the gloss and goo on All I Ever Wanted — seriously, it makes My December look like an Appalachian folk recording — Clarkson ultimately gets her way by relying on one of the great weapons in the pop marketplace: her voice. She wails the ever-lovin' heck out of this album, never oversinging but achieving controlled moments of high-flying, nuanced derring-do. In the end, the record is all hers.
From the neo-Chiffons shimmy of I Want You to the lapel-grabbing synth-rock of My Life Would Suck Without You to the piano grandeur of album-closing If No One Will Listen, Clarkson adapts her super-powered delivery to a head-snapping array of genres and guises. She might not win a Grammy for this, but she just might snag an Oscar. This is a big, fun, loud pop album with plenty of guitar squiggles, keyboard washes and crescendoing chords. If it were 1981, this would be Journey's Escape.
Clarkson's strength remains putting paramours in their place, but unlike My December, she doesn't emote as if she's sequestered in a divorce lawyer's office. On the DioGuardi-penned I Do Not Hook Up, which is going to be huge, Clarkson berates a mopey boy to get over a girl and come see about her. "Oh sweetheart, put the bottle down," she sings with hilariously dry impatience, "you got too much talent."
Even such ballads as Cry and Already Gone, which Clarkson devours with sly watch-this showmanship, are meant to entertain more than inspire tear-splattered diary entries. Breaking up can be fun, boys and girls, but only if you sing loud enough.
There are moments on All I Ever Wanted when it's obvious producers are pushing Clarkson into mimicking Katy Perry's New Wave bubblegum or the neo-soul snap of Duffy and Amy Winehouse. Clarkson lets them think they're getting their way — and then she roars. Yes, she gives in to the pop machine, but just enough to show 'em who's boss.
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.