It’s been four years since Kelly Clarkson released her last studio album, “Stronger.” Since then, Kelly got married and had her first child. She also toured three times, released a greatest hits set in 2012 and a Christmas album, “Wrapped in Red,” in 2013. Last December she performed her first annual Christmas charity concert in Nashville. However, in January she returned with “Heartbeat Song,” the lead single from her latest set, “Piece by Piece.”
“Heartbeat Song” is fun, but decently generic at best. It’s typical Clarkson fare; upbeat and big-voiced, but nothing to write home about. That, combined with the horrid album cover, did not incite the highest expectations for the project.
However, “Piece by Piece” is better than expected, but not quite Clarkson’s best work. It has its high points, of course, and on first impression is better than “Stronger.” Her sound and lyrics seems a bit more mature now, perhaps due to her recent nuptials and motherhood. While on “Stronger” she was singing silly, juvenile songs like “Don’t Be a Girl About It” or “Einstein” with cliché-littered lyrics like its title track, “Piece By Piece” is a bit more thoughtful and emotional; in a good way.
In various interviews, with Billboard for example, Kelly has discussed how being pregnant affected her vocals on the album. She credits her pregnancy hormones for her impassioned vocals on a number of the songs, such as one of the standouts and Kelly’s favorite for the next single, “Invincible,” which was written by hit songwriter Sia.
Clarkson’s chief collaborator on “Piece By Piece,” though, is Greg Kurstin. A wise choice, as he produced the gorgeous and best track on “Stronger,” “Dark Side,” as well as the similarly gorgeous “Honestly” and #1 hit “Stronger.” This go-round, half of the album’s tracks are helmed by Kurstin. The other eight are produced by Jesse Shatkin, Jason Halbert, and Chris DeStefano – all previous collaborators of Clarkson’s.
While she has referred to it as a very personal album, Kelly ironically took a backseat as a songwriter on “Piece By Piece.” She cowrote only five of the album’s songs compared to seven each on both “Stronger” and 2009’s “All I’ve Ever Wanted,” or 2007’s “My December,” on which she cowrote every song. After her fierce (and much-publicized) battles with her label about creative control and being allowed to write on her first three albums, it is a bit surprising to see her relinquishing said control on her seventh. Perhaps the fact that she won the battle and now calls the shots has made her more open to the idea – since she isn’t being forced. However, the songs cowritten by Clarkson on “Piece By Piece” are among its best songs. Said songs include “Tightrope,” “I Had a Dream,” and the Deluxe Edition bonus tracks “Bad Reputation,” “In the Blue” and the title track.
The album’s most personal song is also it’s namesake. “Piece by Piece” is, like 2004’s “Because of You,” a song sung to her father. Here, though, we find a much more matured and confident Clarkson who has progressed from the frightened child found on “Because of You.” On “Piece by Piece,” she is singing about her daughter and her husband. She vows to be a good parent to her daughter, unlike her father, and says that her husband has proved to be a man capable of being a good husband and father. The song is quite heart-wrenching, as she sings, “Piece by piece, you restore my faith/ That a man can be kind and a father should be great.” For her father, no doubt the song packs a painful sting due to its frank and brutal honesty.
The angsty sass is found yet again on the third and final bonus track, “Second Wind,” so much so that you’d think Kelly wrote it: here, she gets a bit cocky on the album’s literal and figurative kiss-off track. A bit like it’s “Stronger” Part 2, she sings lyrics such as “You can’t forget about me/ Say what want about me/ Hate me, underestimate me/ Just when you think I’m at the end/ Any second I’ma catch my second wind.” The track is fitting in light of her 3 year absence from pop radio. Another notable track is “Good Goes the Bye,” which Kelly has stated is inspired by the 80s, and the Eurythmics. The influence is clear and well-done.
While she may not be ever-present as a songwriter on “Piece By Piece,” she is indeed front and center vocally. She sounds fantastic as usual: her vocals are pristine and impressive. Even with the songs she didn’t write, she embodied the emotions of the lyrics and put her all into each vocal performance.
Perhaps the song that soars the most vocally is the aptly titled “Take You High,” another standout track for its vocals and overall production. Not only does Kelly serve her signature belting, but the background vocals, too, are lush and complex.
The album also boasts one unexpected but most-welcomed vocal collaboration: “Run Run Run” with John Legend. It is yet another standout track, especially for its vocals. The pair’s voices blend well and make for a moving duet. They have duetted in the past (on ABC’s show, Duets) but it is a bit of a surprise to see the two together again on a Clarkson album, considering her penchant for collaborations with country acts as of late. Kelly’s team would be foolish not capitalize on the reignited popularity of Legend (thanks to his massive hit “All of Me” and Oscar win) and release the song as a later single.
Coincidence, or maybe not, that she follows her John Legend collaboration with the seemingly-MLK-inspired “I Had a Dream” (he won above mentioned Oscar for his own MLK-inspired song, “Glory”). While Kelly’s “I Had a Dream” is a bit more indirect in it’s inspiration, the references are there: of course in it’s title, but also with lyrics like “”If you wanna lead, be a leader… Climb to the top of the mountain, scream it,” among others.
Overall, “Piece By Piece” is a marked improvement over 2011’s “Stronger” on which Kelly Clarkson reminds us why she is the original American Idol: that voice, and her ability to use it to make songs her own. It is also her first standard, studio album since becoming a wife, a mother and turning 30, and her sound has matured accordingly. However, nothing on “Piece By Piece” is particularly fresh, new or outstandingly impressive for her. It will be interesting to see where she goes next from here. The first step was the necessary maturation in her sound and lyrics, which has been completed. The next step is an innovative overhaul of her sound to take it beyond her standard pop fare, which has become a bit overdone.