Next year marks the tenth anniversary of one-time waitress Kelly Clarkson’s rags-to-riches victory on the very first American Idol, and over the course of her four previous albums we’ve seen her go from R’n'B princess (Thankful, ‘Miss Independent’) to pop-rock grrrl next door (Breakaway, ‘Since U Been Gone’) to a slightly gothic woman scorned (My December, ‘Never Again’) to mature relationship guru (All I Ever Wanted, ‘My Love Would Suck Without You’).
With Stronger, her fifth LP, she proves that she still knows how to let her hair down. ‘What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger)’ is the token jump-up-and-down empowerment anthem that Kelly does so well; caked in grass-is-greener lyrics and a chorus that’ll have gay clubs the world over live and kicking into the small hours. ‘Einstein’ is similarly playful (“dumb plus dumb equals you”) and ‘You Can’t Win’ is a lively Pink-a-like ode to (you guessed it!) not believing in yourself.
But as her 30th birthday approaches, the heartbreak queen shows some wonderfully mature colours as well. ‘I Forgive You’ is like a “where are they now” for the likes of ‘Since U Been Gone’ and ‘Behind Those Hazel Eyes’ (“no shame, no blame, cos the damage is done, and I forgive you”) and ‘Standing In Front Of You’, ‘The War Is Over’ and ‘Breaking Your Own Heart’ are slushy ballads far more gorgeously restrained than the likes of ‘Because Of You’ and All I Ever Wanted‘s ‘Cry’.
That’s not to say she can’t still let loose when she wants to. Those who fear her glass-shattering belting days are behind her need only listen to ‘Let Me Down’, a track that leaked in demo form earlier this year but sounds even better in full post-mix form; or the anxiety-fest ‘Honestly’, produced by the brilliant Greg Kurstin. Actually, while I’m on Kurstin, I should also quickly mention his other contribution ‘Dark Side’, a fantastic single-in-waiting that just gets better with every listen.
What comes across more than anything on Stronger is just that Kelly – though she may not be mentioned alongside the Beyonces and the Britneys in Most Famous lists – now pretty much has the soulful, emotive pop-rock market more or less to herself. In a world where the mid-naughties brat-pack are going all “serious singer-songwriter” and just about everyone else is off “down da club”, Kelly Clarkson is constant. Her sound progresses and matures with every album, but she’s still that relatable (excuse the cliche) girl-next-door who first won our hearts back in 2002. And long may she continue.