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‘Meaning of Life': Kelly Clarkson Finally Delivers Her Pop Vocal Classic (Review)

Kelly Clarkson Meaning of Life Album review
Vincent Peters

Finally. 

It’s the word on the minds and lips of enduring Kelly Clarkson fans, disciples who have been forced to concede over the years that:

Yes, “Since U Been Gone” is great, but what about that earsplitting “I’d Rather Go Blind” tribute to Etta James?

Sure, “Stronger” is consummate hairbrush karaoke, but didn’t you know this woman is opera-trained, can scale octaves like a spring-loaded pole vaulter and frequently navigates complex melismas with both her hands tied behind her back? 

And totally, that “Piece by Piece” cry-fest was as sweet as Splenda, but don’t you remember Clarkson left The Pope near-tears at St. Joseph’s Seminary, and President Barack Obama breathless at his 2013 inauguration — each time, with a 19th-century standard?

And if it hadn’t been for the journey toward Clarkson’s 2002 American Idol win, the degree of her talent may have been an even bigger secret: the pop-rock path paved by her resultant Sony contract, which Clarkson has likened to an “arranged marriage” on several occasions, has been an undisputed commercial success (she’s sold more than 25 million albums and won three Grammys) that has nevertheless done her talent little justice. From 2003 debut Thankful to 2015’s Piece by Piece — and even across her career-defining Breakaway in 2004 — Clarkson’s served as a prized steed reduced to performing laps around the backyard at kids’ parties; John Nash forced to tutor after-school algebra to make ends meet. All the while, the two best studio vocals of her career, “Why Don’t You Try” and “Bad Reputation,” both acted as marginalized bonus tracks, a sign her previous RCA management was aware of — but never completely embraced — her capacity for extra oomph.

But Clarkson was born to craft a soul-pop record, and while the wait for Meaning of Life, her first LP released independently of her American Idol contract, hasn’t been easy, it will ultimately prove to have been a worthwhile one. Now 35, Clarkson told Entertainment Weekly that it’s a “grown-ass album” she wouldn’t have been able to tackle as a 20-year-old industry newcomer, and she’s right. While Idol found her convincingly covering soul classics penned by Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin weekly, her base tone is, 15 years later, as wet and thick as mixed concrete, and in 2017, lays a wind- and water-resistant foundation from which she finally has license to wail like Janis, belt like Patti and unleash whistle tones you haven’t heard since “Fantasy.” Her new home, Atlantic Records, has proven to be a most hospitable one, and Meaning of Life is officially her estate’s most valuable addition.

It was a surprise to Clarkson, herself, that casual followers didn’t know she could sing well, but as of October 27, pleading her case will stand as a needless effort — her eighth studio album is, from top to bottom and from start to finish, as good as a collection of pop vocals gets. The argument makes, builds upon and resolutely proves itself.

If, as Clarkson’s said is the case, playback of old work leads to memories of feeling suppressed, she can be satisfied she’s finally harnessed the sound of freedom, and a single play of Meaning of Life amounts to something clean but forcefully tornadic. More impressively, where it could — in spots — register as gimmicky soul-pop anachronism, the 14-track collection is more sincere than anything she’s previously released. The album hosts some spectacularly difficult technique (That sequence of “I Don’t Think About You” glottal stops and falsetto wisps! That second “Didn’t I” verse and pre-chorus!), and yet registers as completely effortless. Here, we’re formally reintroduced to the Kelly Clarkson whose “Natural Woman” was so categorically brilliant, it inspired a stage-crasher to risk an Idol security team-takedown just to hug her on live TV.

And on the topic of “Didn’t I,” first-time listeners would be wise to skip ahead to the album’s ninth track for Superlative Kelly. The song, a clear ode to Franklin, mixes the delicious recalcitrance of “Respect” with contemporary production, and the lyrics are nothing short of smoothed-over Motown: “My fire was hot enough, to burn on for the both of us / But your water keeps putting us out / And I should be steam, the way you love to rain over me,” she croons before she’s joined by exceptional background singers Nicole Hurst, Bridget Sarai and Jessi Collins, who feature heavily and stunningly throughout the LP.

Clarkson’s band, too, is blindingly effective weaponry, and proves on the equally bouncy, Florence Welch-ish “Heat” (in an ideal world, it would’ve served as first single over “Love So Soft”) that Atlantic and its newest signee have approached each track from all sides: harmonies are airtight, brassy progressions are complements that don’t overwhelm and very little sounds superfluous. With a less meticulous hand, a track like “Whole Lotta Woman,” what will likely become the album’s most buzzworthy track, could have come off as honky tonk artifice. Instead, its sharpness elevates it to standing alongside the likes of Peggy Lee’s “I’m a Woman,” and attempts to sing along will leave listeners literally breathless.

Nods to ’60s and ’70s radio play are just the half of it, though — like a Berklee-schooled jukebox strapped to Doc Brown’s DeLorean, Meaning of Life barrels through time and genre without breaking its stride, or abandoning a crux of doo wop-worthy, jazz-injected R&B. While “Slow Dance” will have listeners convinced they’re guests of honor at a WWII-era military ball, the beautifully bluesy “Cruel” could have been sentimentally spun on vinyl two decades later. Meanwhile, “Medicine” and “Would You Call That Love” will make ’90s kids swoon, evoking the likes of En Vogue and Daydream-era Mariah Carey. “I’m living my life like a celebration / Changed all my visions like a revelation,” Clarkson spits with laser-sharp precision on the former, a wistful tell-off with plentiful bass line that begs to eventually find its way to radio.

And where weaker larynxes would have collapsed by the final track “Go High,” the album’s most modern effort that features off-beat voice effects (it’s Meaning of Life‘s only real miss), Clarkson’s pipes remain in fighting shape: in less than two hours, she serves as Gladys Knight, Frank Sinatra and Ann Wilson, but is still, very identifiably, herself. As Idol judge Randy Jackson — who once called Clarkson the most exciting voice in years — once observed: “[She] can sing anything, dawg.” And she really can. There’s a reason she was tapped to perform Cole Porter, Reba McEntire and Sgt. Pepper tributes within months of each other between 2006 and 2007.

Finally, there’s “I Don’t Think About You,” a ballad that may stand as the most memorable recording of Clarkson’s career. While the terrific “Move You” is more obviously cinematic, the Jessica Karpov-penned “Think” will squeeze even the most resourceful tear ducts dry, and finds Clarkson making magic with natural inflection, only to set her prized pitch free by the first chorus’ pass. The song’s final moments are simply spellbinding; its message, a conceivable storybook ending to a chapter that left her creatively stifled. “I didn’t want it all to fall apart, so I decided just to play the part / But honestly, I’d do it all again / Putting up with all the bullshit, it made me strong enough to do this / It used to bother me, thought I could never leave / After all that I’ve been through, nothing left to prove / No, I don’t think about you,” she demands without compromise or contrition.

Clarkson told Valentine in the Morning as part of a pre-release press tour that the album’s eponymous “Meaning of Life” was a gateway to the LP she’s wanted to make since she was a teenager. Originally intended for placement on the otherwise dance pop-heavy Piece by Piece, the track, Clarkson feared, would get lost in the mix for its anomalously wolfish and funky brashness. And so, she kept it in her back pocket.

And so, she set into motion the best work of her career, and what she can proudly call her very own pop classic.

Whether previous studio efforts have sunk or swum, Clarkson has afforded her followers a type of consolation available to few other fandoms: no matter what, she can make anything sound exceptional live. Here, for the very first time, recordings follow suit, and front-row seating or exclusive studio sessions aren’t necessary to hear her at her very best.

On Meaning of Life, Clarkson is — as we hoped she’d someday be — as good as her Idol inspirations, and then some.

(But still, you can’t miss this thing live.)

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