Kelly Clarkson heaves a complete sonic overhaul on her pop brand with her new record Piece by Piece (out March 3). Taking a three and a half year hiatus between non-holiday releases, the original American Idol flavor takes more than a few dizzying risks on the 16-track firestorm, ripping into EDM-tasered textures and re-creating the magic of anthems. With HeartBeat Song and follow-up single Invincible nestled comfortably true to empowering form, Clarkson later shatters all expectations one might have for a solo female so far into their career. 10 years is more like a century in mainstream Top 40, but this powerhouse makes a strong case for a comeback, redefining and leveling the playing field.
The intoxicating Take You High weaves together electro-synth and Because of You balladeer-plushness with clarity and maturity, furthering Clarkson's development as one of music's most daring. I Had a Dream and Let Your Tears Fall engage her instincts in refreshing ways, too; she aggressively unleashes an inner beast that chomps down on the beats as fast as she lets the lyrics spray off her tongue. She allows the listener to float to her through the fog of rich production and dance-club vibrancy. As has always been the case for Clarkson, her emotional embers are the key ingredients in her ability to deliver vast and extraordinary stories.
The title track, especially, demonstrates a profound sense of self-worth, as she dishes up a personal anecdote about the roles of men in her life. She relives the staggering and piercing experience of her father's abandonment when she was a naive six-year-old—she juxtaposes that stabbing pain with the flourishing and healing love of her husband. Dipped in pulsating drums and an R&B wail, the journey is a 1,500-mile walk of sensory triggers and dusty intensity. The intimate burning is a mighty throughline on Piece by Piece, sustained on the aching, vigorously-vocalized Someone, the smooth John Legend-assisted Run, Run, Run and the rhapsodic closer Second Wind.
Tightrope, despite how well-intentioned and well-sung, meanders somewhere in the parched desert of bland, vanilla and forgettable. War Paint and Dance with Me rekindle the kind of glitter-rave thumping throne she so marvelously conquers, followed by a 1-2-3 electric punch: the sweltering rocker Nostalgic (perhaps the most adventurous of the heap), the alt-pop explosion Good Goes the Bye and the Destiny's Child-saturated kiss-off Bad Reputation. Clarkson knows what she wants (and everyone knows it, too). In her very capable hands, she collects some of her best recordings of her career, sewing a patchwork quilt of EDM, pop, rock, R&B and soul. There's a story to be told here: she builds the record in a way that leaves a surprise around every corner. And even when some of those surprises (like In the Blue) are like unwrapping a pack of socks at Christmas, there's a level of musicianship to be admired.
Must-Listen Tracks: Nostalgic, Someone, Bad Reputation, Piece by Piece