Tags: Jason Aldean, Kara DioGuardi, Kelly Clarkson, Review, Stronger
- Mr. Know It All
- What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger)
- Dark Side
- You Love Me
- Standing In Front Of You
- I Forgive You
- The War Is Over
- Let Me Down
- You Can’t Win
- Breaking Your Own Heart
- Don’t You Wanna Stay (with Jason Aldean)
- Don’t Be A Girl About It
- The Sun Will Rise (feat. Kara DioGuardi)
- Why Don’t You Try
Kelly Clarkson has always been an artist that I look forward to hearing. After releasing her fourth album, All I Ever Wanted, I had no idea what she would have in store for her next release. As much as I liked the album, it was very apparent that she did not feel comfortable with the way her label was painting her to the public. She even confessed that she didn’t recognize herself in photos because of all the Photoshop they used. The label pushed her into a specific look in order to sell more records and even hired the popular producers at the time to ensure she would have hits. This was a far-cry from My December where she had a lot more control and input, making for a very personal and emotional record. Stronger brings her back to her usual sound of pop-rock but it’s more mature than it was before. Wanting to make an album that emphasized her vocals, she strived to make it sound like her live performances. The album balances the personal and raw aspect of My December with the infectious hooks of Breakaway and All I Ever Wanted. Stronger is a culmination of everything she’s done and yet she still manages to make it sound fresh and stand out from anything she’s done.
Mr. Know It All is her first lead-single that avoids the pop-rock sound that she comes back with. Unlike her past singles, which have always been upbeat and aggressive, this one is her calmest yet. The acoustic guitar and piano that lead the track are breathtaking and develop such a serene atmosphere. The percussion comes in with Kelly and her vocals are so clear, strong and raw. Despite the rather calm feel of the instrumental, her voice is very in-your-face which works wonders with the subject matter, “Mr. Know It All/well you, you think you know it all/but you don’t know a thing at all.” The chorus takes the gorgeous melody even further as the lineup of instruments crescendos into a blissful tempo. She sings powerfully but with gorgeous and delicate tones, “oh you think that you know me, know me/that’s why I’m leaving you lonely, lonely/‘cause baby you don’t know a thing about me/you don’t know a thing about me.” I love how the second half of the chorus gets much more aggressive in terms of both the melody and vocal delivery. The song throws in some lovely strings in the bridge and even overlaps parts of the chorus over one another for the end. Vocally, she remains consistent but she does throw in some amazing belts in the final chorus. The song has a bit of the old and the new which makes it a fantastic start for the album. What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger) is the big pop-rock anthem and the theme that the album is built around. This is a good old-fashioned Kelly track and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. “You know the bed feels warmer/sleeping here alone,” she sings to an infectious guitar and synth riff. It starts off with a mid-tempo feel but pounding drums and a gritty electric guitar bring it up a level until it fully transitions into dance-pop for the chorus. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger/stand a little taller/doesn’t mean I’m lonely when I’m alone,” she belts in the explosive chorus. It’s a powerful, infectious and completely empowering moment. She sounds amazing and her voice shines through the entire track. The rock and dance elements blend perfectly for one of the catchiest hooks on the record. Usually, she does these types of songs in an angst way but this time it’s feel-good and uplifting, “you know in the end the day you left was just my beginning.” It’s such a nice twist to her pop-rock sound.
A sweet music box and soft ad-libs open Dark Side, one of my favourite songs. This was well-received by fans but it wasn’t what I was expecting at all. From the title alone, I assumed it was going to be dark rock but it’s actually a lovely mid-tempo about being loved despite your imperfections. Her voice is soft and exudes a beautiful vulnerability as she begins to open up while the instrumental contrasts with her raw tones as it builds up aggressively, “there’s a place that I know/it’s not pretty there and few have ever gone/if I show it to you now/will it make you run away?” The song pops in the chorus due to the exuberant synths and her soaring vocals, “everybody’s got a dark side/do you love me?/can you love mine?” There’s a dark, haunting vibe to the melody but a shimmer of hope comes through, especially during the bridge where a bright air takes over, “just tell me that you will stay/promise me you will stay.” The track ends as all the instruments die out leaving just Kelly and the sweet music box as she recites the bridge one last time. This is a superb love song with a resounding message. The first real ballad, Honestly, is one of her best and most raw pieces of work. The soft plucking of a guitar and the calm synths set up a haunting and magical ambience. “Could you love somebody like that?/could you attract someone like that?” she wonders with a fragility that is shiver-inducing. Her voice melts into the melody and she delivers with intense passion. It’s the most heartfelt moment on the record and it’s both tragic and beautiful. The music crescendos just a bit for the chorus where she begins to plead “face me/make me listen to the truth even if it breaks me/you can judge me, love me/if you’re hating me, do it honestly.” The chorus is overflowing with raw emotion and her voice is so luscious. She pours her heart out and it tugs at your heart. She cries out desperately in the bridge to the spiraling synths and following this is one of her most amazing vocal performances. Her voice dips into high, angelic notes that are simply stunning. The power, emotion and vulnerability in her voice is overwhelming. This has become my favourite ballad by her.
You Love Me is an emotional, upbeat track that is super infectious. She finds herself surrounded by the sound of a bouncing guitar and drumline. She throws in some stuttering that is so addicting. There’s quite a nice groove to the melody and her voice shines clear and bright. Once she gets to the chorus, she shifts into a sad but aggressive stance and the arrangement blossoms into a delicious pop-rock tune, “you didn’t let me down/you didn’t tear me apart/you just opened my eyes/while breaking my heart.” I love how the song has an upbeat, almost vibrant feel while the lyrical content is the complete opposite. She embodies both of these aspects as she performs with sadness to her voice but still manages to tell the person off. Her vocal prowess is nothing short of amazing. Einstein is a straight-up diss track with a sassy attitude. Unlike the previous songs, this one has a gritty taste to it because of the screechy guitars. Chock-full of math references, “simple math/our love divided by the square root of pride/multiply your lies plus time/I’m going out of my mind,” she delivers with spunk and an in-your-face attitude. It’s an interesting way to describe a love gone wrong and the arrangement is quite charming. It’s not a all-out assault of guitars but a nice subtle beat blended with a sick synth line. Her “oohs” in the chorus are to die for and her laid-back but badass vocals flow infectiously along to the melody, “I didn’t get it the first time/but don’t think I’ve been so blind/yeah I may not be Einstein but I know/dumb plus dumb equals you.” It isn’t as outgoing as the others but it’s very catchy.
Standing In Front Of You provides a sigh of relief. It’s a gentle ballad that boasts a soft acoustic instrumental. Kelly graces the verses with carefree vocals, backed up by quite a heavy but slow drum beat. The atmosphere is breezy and relaxing, a wonderful song to sink into and enjoy. I absolutely adore when her voice rises ever so slightly into a higher register just before the chorus, “even though it’s clear and sunny/and you fight it so hard/how to tell if it’s real or not.” It’s a gorgeous transition into the chorus which gets a delicious taste of strings. Her vocals harmonize with the touching melody and there’s no belting or any powerful moments. She tones it all down and effortlessly breathes out each note, “take a breath and listen/open up stop wishing/all that you’ve been missing’s/standing in front of you.” In the bridge, for a brief moment, she displays high tones that are simply divine. There’s no anger, attitude or sadness in this ballad. It’s a loving, sweet and rich song that stands on its own. I Forgive You is quite an unusual song for her in terms of its narrative. A buzzing guitar and synth line leads the way for a surprisingly bright concoction of pop-rock Rather than tearing someone down like she normally does, she sings about forgiveness which isn’t a theme that comes up a lot in her music. Halfway through the verses, the arrangement picks up with more beats. I love how the music fades completely right before the chorus and comes back with a vengeance. The guitars and drums thrash around while she sings without restrain, “I forgive you/we were just a couple of kids/trying to figure out how to live doing it our way.” The bright, optimistic sound of the chorus really provides a breath of fresh air. I really like the message she presents and without it the song wouldn’t have been as good. The arrangement is predictable and a bit typical but, overall, it’s a good listen.
Hello has quite a lively melody and is led by a guitar and clapping beat. The song has a fun and laid-back arrangement which remains steady for the most part. Her vocals are very balanced, never being too soft or too hard. Despite the cheerful nature of the melody, the lyrical content is very depressing, “hello, hello/is anybody listening?/let go/as everyone let’s go of me/oh oh, won’t somebody show me that I’m not alone, not alone.” This isn’t one of my favourites and like the previous song it doesn’t stand out much on its own because it sounds slightly similar to some of the other tracks. Things slow down again for The War Is Over, a triumphant ballad dipped in depressing overtones. Kelly begins, joined by the subtle sound of guitar chords, with a lingering sadness in her voice, “I watch the days rush by me like a river/I shouldn’t wait, but I’m scared to touch the water.” Vocally, lyrically and musically, this track is phenomenal. The guitars, as the song progresses, become less subtle and once it hits the pre-chorus the rest of the instrumentals flourish as her voice rises with determination, “I’m finally walking away/‘cause you don’t deserve me/and you’re not worthy.” The chorus is amazing with strong drums and marvelous vocals that are drenched in anger, pain and sadness, “and I won’t let you pull me in/because I know you’re gonna win/but the war is over.” She falls into a vulnerable state in the bridge with a stripped-down guitar until the melody picks up again and she channels all her anger into her voice, belting out incredible notes.
She unleashes a ruthless fury for Let Me Down, the pop-rock gem of the album. At first, it seems a bit similar to many of the other songs because of the guitar and drum beat but it throws in synths and a few piano licks for a dramatic effect. There are even some radio frequency and static effects in the background to spice it up. She sings with a mellow, spunky attitude for the verses but in the chorus she goes all-out, “you’re only gonna let me down/when it counts, you countdown/you’re only gonna turn me out/as I burn, you burn out.” The arrangement follows suit as the drums and guitars turn into a headbanging melody. It’s the most enticing and fist-pumping hook on the album and it’s perfect to rock out to. It gets even better during the bridge because the music darkens and her voice turns almost vixen-like, gaining power until she delivers her most intense vocal performance on the record. These intense vocals carry into the final chorus and give it a much stronger impact. It’s such an energetic rock track that will keep you moving. This is one of the album’s best songs. You Can’t Win is another flawless track and it’s a blast. With a groovy pop-rock melody, Kelly provides a fun and catchy song with a great message about the media, “if you’re thin, poor little walking disease/if you’re not, they’re all screaming obese.” The lyrics ring true for all celebrities and she speaks to the immense contradictions they have to go through. She takes an assertive stance in the bombastic chorus which has such a wonderful and cheerful air. I love the back and forth lyrical style because it reflects the media spot-on and it’s the reason the song is so good, “if you’re straight, why aren’t you married yet?/if you’re gay, why aren’t you waving a flag?” There’s no moment of relaxation here, it’s all in-your-face energy and attitude.
Breaking Your Own Heart is a sublime ballad made-up of an acoustic guitar that is accompanied by a lovely string arrangement. Her vocals flutter with a caring, protective tone that melts into the warm melody. Beautifully, the track utilizes a subdued taste of her pop-rock sound as electric guitars and drums take over for the chorus where she cries, “you’re breaking your own heart/taking it too far down the lonely road/you say you just want love/but when it’s close enough you just let it go.” Of course, she gets in a few powerful notes and surprisingly, throws in a massive guitar riff in the bridge which manages to fit in. The song is aesthetically pleasing and an enjoyable listen even if a little safe. I was torn and still am with Don’t You Wanna Stay (with Jason Aldean). The first time I heard it I wasn’t too impressed and I was terrified that she was going to go country for the next album. It’s just not a genre I wanted to see her fully embrace. Thankfully, my fears were put to rest and I do somewhat like it a lot more than I used to. The melody is actually quite soothing thanks to the country twang of the acoustic guitar. Jason’s vocals are good but he has such a typical country sound. There’s really nothing amazing about his parts but Kelly’s, on the other hand, are a different story. Her verse is comprised of gorgeous strings and a heavier beat. It just sounds much more beautiful and her voice is flawless. She makes this song worth listening to. The chorus gets a rockier edge and they harmonize well together. Her ad-libs near the end are powerful and amazing. I really love the instrumental outro of strings, drums and guitars. It’s a melodic and wonderful blend. Even though I’m not a huge fan of this track, it does show just how versatile she is.
Alone opens with a misleading cute piano because it then erupts into a delicious rock beat. It packs a punch but it also has a fun, breezy feel. This is another track that sounds happier than it actually is, “‘cause when I’m with you I’m alone/no matter what you say/I hope you know, woah/that I’m alone.” I love it when Kelly lets someone have it and this is no exception. The chorus is brimming with energy and it’s immensely infectious. It has a bubbly, vibrant composition that is also emulated in her voice. The optimistic tinge to the track makes sense in the end when she switches the lyrics, “when I’m with him I’m not alone/gets better everyday/I hope you know, oh/I’m not alone.” I love the sudden switch in her attitude and it sounds so much better when it all comes together. The repetition of “I’m not alone” at the end is just perfect and drives the message harder. Don’t Be A Girl About It is a pure fun and the catchiest song on the album. A fuzzy synth line is hooked up with a rumbling guitar as Kelly embarrasses her man, “I knew a guy who changed my world/and then he grew into a little girl.” The chorus is dominated by electrifying guitars and a spunky Kelly. It’s sassy, exciting and full of attitude. The chorus does borrow from a few of the other tracks but that’s not much of an issue because the pre-chorus is what makes the song spectacular. In the pre-chorus, her vocal harmonies are out of this world, “and ooh it’s not looking good/and ooh I’m not in the mood/and ooh I can’t get through/to you.” Her “oohs” are heavenly and the way she holds on to them is so damn contagious. This is the most fun she’s ever sounded and I love every minute of it.
The Sun Will Rise (feat. Kara DioGuardi) blooms with a haunting array of strings that paint the picture of a sun rise. Following this gorgeous intro is an acoustic guitar and her soft vocals. Her voice is so deep and luscious. The chorus is quite repetitive but its uplifting nature is a welcome addition and Kelly and Kara harmonize well together. The second verse is upbeat and Kara takes over with her bright, high vocals. I’ve never heard of her but she has a lovely voice. The second chorus picks up even more and they start singing with so much power. I love how the song just gets more vibrant as it goes on until the two of them sing “it’ll be alright” over and over again to the mellifluous beat. The second Why Don’t You try started, I was brought back to her early years. This is a huge throwback to her first album. She hasn’t done a soul, jazzy track since then and you can hear just how much she’s grown. The soulful melody is kept to a bare minimum and her voice is so silky. It’s a very simple song, relying solely on her voice to carry it. There’s nothing else on the album that sounds like it which really makes it a unique addition. There’s something about the chorus that just pulls you in and her vocal runs are stunning, “so why don’t you try/to make me stay/when it’s time to go.” It’s a treat to hear her return to this style and a nostalgic way to close the album.
Conclusion: Kelly has found a balance with Stronger that will please many fans. She’s managed to take the fun elements from her last album and make them much more mature. Unlike her previous albums, this one has a very specific sound and thematic structure. Stronger is all about empowerment and not about wallowing in heartbreak. Many of the songs share the same themes and some do end up sounding very similar to each other which is the album’s only shortcoming. Some of the songs lose their charm because it’s already been heard in a previous song. Her voice, as always, is extraordinary and she proves time and time again that pop singers do not need auto-tune/vocoder. The way she plays with her voice is much more interesting than any vocal effect. This isn’t her best album, My December still holds that title, but it is very close. Stronger doesn’t offer anything new and doesn’t experiment with any new sounds but it doesn’t have to. It’s a collection of emotional and powerful tunes that will tug at your heart and have you rocking out at the same time.
Recommended Tracks: Honestly, Let Me Down, What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger), Dark Side, You Love Me, Mr. Know It All, Einstein, The War Is Over, You Can’t Win and Don’t Be A Girl About It