Pros:Kelly Clarkson defies "marketing types" and puts out music she wants, co-writing the songs herself
Cons:She continues her descent into a dark, miserable place one hopes she ultimately escapes from
The Bottom Line: She's a good singer and is now showing some talent as a songwriter, but enough is enough with all that negativity!
My review of Kelly Clarkson's last album said that it was a "great but depressing album", and that "I just hope she gets a bit happier in the future." This was in reference to the trajectory of her musical releases so far, which went from sappy positiveness with her debut single "A Moment Like This", through a mostly-pleasant pop/soul first album (with a few hints at possible emotional troubles lurking underneath), to a second album that showed great artistic development, but quite a bit of anger and sadness as well.
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Now her third album continues that trend, letting her emotional state hit rock bottom -- at least, one hopes that this is the bottom for her, with nowhere to go but up, since I'm not sure the world is ready for something from her that goes even deeper into depression and vengefulness.
Kelly's works are following a similar progression to the Harry Potter books in that their tone keeps getting darker and grimmer as they go along. With Potter, this culminated in the final volume in which... well, I don't want to give any spoilers here, but lots of bad stuff happens... and I can't tell you whether stuff gets better in the end without doing too much to spoil it. But in Kelly's case, we still don't know if there's going to be a happy ending... or at least a happy continuation (because her career is hopefully very far from its ending); we'll just have to see her subsequent releases to find that out.
One should keep in mind that December is followed by a whole new year, and spring is soon here (depending on whether the groundhog sees his shadow... as well as whether you're in the hemisphere where December is in the winter instead of the summer, and not in a place like south Florida where December is actually one of the most pleasant-weather months). So we might eventually get "My April Showers" or "My May Flowers" from her.
It's reputed that Kelly had a big fight with all the producers and executives and Marketing Types over this album, since it wasn't going in a direction that those guys thought was "commercial". What's "commercial" in pop culture can be a really fickle thing; there are times and places where "grim and gritty" is what's deemed marketable. The late 1980s and early 1990s were one such period, with grimness taking over everything from comic books (The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen) to "grunge-rock" and "gangsta-rap" music. However, at other times, a light and sunny approach is what's considered to sell. The only thing you can be sure of is that whatever the corporate types think is trendy now is what they'll insist everybody produce tons of, even if most of it is crud (and Sturgeon's Law says that 90% of everything is crud).
So you've got to admire Kelly for standing up to all of those guys and creating the music she wants, whether or not it'll sell or be well-reviewed. (That's especially welcome coming from somebody who was stamped out by the American Idol machine, a marketing phenomenon designed to produce absolutely homogenized pop idols.) But you still don't necessarily want her to succeed at it, if that means setting off yet another depressing pop-cultural trend of dark nights of the soul... because if that happens, you know that those same marketing types who fought her all the way when she was working on this album will turn around and commission a glut of similarly-themed works from less talented artists.
Anyway, to get on with what's actually in this album, I found there to be two songs I actually want to keep listening to: her first single release from this set, "Never Again", and also "Don't Waste Your Time". I found both of these pretty catchy. Oh, and there's "Be Still", which might just grow on me. Other than that, the songs are just not of the sort that really stick in my head. "Irvine" is pretty weird, though, in that it has a long silent stretch in the middle of the track, followed by a whole different song recorded in a manner that sounds like it's being played on a scratchy old record through a cheap tinny radio. An intentional effect, I presume.
But you're still constantly drawn to the fact that the songs (all of which were co-written by Kelly, with the help of various other songwriters) keep harping on the themes of relationships gone bad, friends and lovers betraying her, and the wrath of a vengeful scorned woman. It's enough to make you never want to even think about becoming Kelly's boyfriend / lover / husband (assuming that you, the reader, are male!), since she looks to be the type who will leap out of your dreams to become your worst nightmare, once she decides (rightly or wrongly) that you've done her wrong. Maybe she won't literally kill you in the "Fatal Attraction" manner, but she'll certainly aim to make your life a living hell, at least if some of her lyrics and music videos are any indication.
I'll make one final tangential note of the fact that one of her songs on this album is called "Judas", and as expected deals with betrayal. It's interesting that this cultural image has been able to stay potent for 2000 years now. It happens that I've just recently watched three different takes on the final days of Jesus as they came up on my Netflix queue; The Passion of the Christ, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Jesus Christ, Superstar. Judas was a significant and complex character in all of these, with motivations much more nuanced than simply selling out his friend for a few coins. But I don't think Kelly has reached the point where she's able to see any such nuances in the betrayals she's singing about; to her, those guys are just plain evil.
In "Don't Waste Your Time", she asks, "Friend... what does that even mean?" One hopes that as she develops further as a person and an artist, she will get to learn what "friend" really means... she seems to have "enemy" down pat already.