Normally, the former American Idol winner's lead singles connect with fans and the general public straight away, but she faces an uphill battle with "Heartbeat Song," the first promoted song off "Piece By Piece." It peaks this week at no. 34 on the Billboard Hot 100 and shows no signs of climbing much higher. Clarkson credits the song as the bridge to this album from the last, claiming "I always pick a song that maybe could have fit on the last record but was a little bit more progressive," but its vibe misses the mark for both records. It fails to spark any emotion from the listener or Kelly, but perhaps that's due to the unnecessary overuse of auto-tune. Any second she'll catch her second wind!
In an age where stars are surprising fans with unannounced album drops, Clarkson thought she'd play ball - releasing one song per day following the launch date. Two of those early drops included the Sia-penned jams "Invincible" and "Let Your Tears Fall." Kelly relied heavily on others this album after experiencing a tumultuous pregnancy with daughter River Rose. She told USA Today:
"It was the first time I didn't really feel inspired, because I was so sick," Kelly says, "but I didn't feel like writing anymore. The big difference for this recording was collecting from other writers I'm inspired by."
It's too bad, because that lack of Clarkson's personal creative development is evident throughout.
Sia delivered on both songs she contributed, a job well done. Clarkson conveys a powerful message in "Invincible," a track about running from life's empty threats and rising above - then again on "Let Your Tears Fall," imploring her counter-part to share their fears and secrets and find refuge in her love. Both combine feel-good melodies with repetitive choruses and electronic backgrounds, a new sound Clarkson explores on many tracks throughout "Piece By Piece."
The album title track is Clarkson's most personal song on the record, sharing a little girl's pain of abandonment from her father. From there, the collection of songs ranges from the filler ballads like "Tightrope" and "Someone" to the beautiful duet with John Legend on "Run Run Run." Sure, Kelly had no idea Tokio Hotel recorded the song as well, an unfortunate casualty when your creative control is reduced due to pregnant-related nausea. The pair compete with each other through the chorus then the melody before duking it out in a belting match at its climax. Clarkson tells People it's her favorite song. "I just had to find the perfect person to make it a duet. John just brought it."
There are several solid boppers that emphasize Clarkson's transition to classic pop, including the preachy feel-good "I Had A Dream" as well as "Dance With Me," a song about, well... dancing with her. Songs like these are a definite indication of Clarkson's lack of input. Both are methodical attempts to showcase Kelly's singing chops, but instead sound like lazy re-creations of something Taylor Swift left on the "1989" cutting-room floor.
"Good Goes The Bye" and "In The Blue" are far better "Piece By Piece" attempts with their colorful melodies and thought-out lyrics. These songs bridge the "Stronger" album far better than "Heartbeat Song," but to each their own.
Ahh, the best for last:
Clarkson excels when she combines sass and attitude with a catchy melody. Thankfully, she included those elements in "Nostalgic," "Second Wind," "War Paint" and "Bad Reputation," the album's clear winners and stand-out tracks that deserve the single treatment at some point this era. All four scrumptious audio delights are a breath of fresh air for die-hard Kelly fans; warm reminders of songs we previously fell in love with from her lengthy catalog. The emphasis on these tracks isn't just the crazy production finally, but the marriage between the synth gymnastics and her colossal singing voice. These are the jams we'll bounce around to in the convertible, or play during the dreaded 15-minute treadmill sprint. "Nostalgic" (oh, the irony) is the album's champion with "Bad Reputation" at a close second place.
Overall, Kelly Clarkson's "Piece By Piece" delivers what we expected: a good pop album with enough singles to carry it through to her next inevitable record. It's disappointing Clarkson gave less input this time around than ever before, but gives her the opportunity to reinterpret someone else's vision, and that is a challenge in itself. Afterall, the album is titled "Piece By Piece," not "Here Is Me Entirely."
3.5 / 5