Kelly Clarkson's new album has been subject to more delays than the NBA season. But apparently the perpetual tweaking was a matter of fine-tuning, not desperation, since Stronger lives up to its title -- trumping not just the current pop-diva competition but all of Clarkson's previous albums, too.
Whether the general public has been waiting on tenterhooks for the record remains to be seen, since the lead single, Mr. Know It All, peaked at No. 18 in its debut week. But there are six, seven, maybe eight tracks here better than that okay opener waiting to break away and get a shot at commandeering the radio. As a succession of potential smashes, Stronger feels like tuning in to an expertly programed all-Kelly/all-the-time hits station.
That's giving a lot of inherent credit to the revolving door of writer-producers responsible for the parade of hooks, almost all of them new to Clarkson's team. (No Dr. Luke this time; no Ryan Tedder.) Still, no one's likely to tag Stronger as a producers' album when it manages to be such a master class in great pop singing.
Part of greatness is restraint, and what a pleasure it is hearing Clarkson hold herself back here, if that doesn't sound too counterintuitive. There's hardly a showboat-y moment in an hour's worth of lead vocals here. At times, in her lowest range, she even sounds like a dead ringer for Rihanna -- which is hardly the highest compliment you could pay a singer of Clarkson's range, but it does give her a starting point from which to graduate to the kind of wailing fans are waiting for.
If it's balladic Kelly that thrills you, you may need to hold out for some future project Clarkson is destined to record her middle age, since only two out of the 13 tracks on the standard edition fall outrightly into that category. Stronger is for fans who prefer fun Kelly, or angry Kelly… which have come to be pretty much the same thing, come to think of it.
For someone who still enjoys an image as America's duly elected sweetheart, Clarkson gets a lot of mileage out of righteous rage. The pissy post-breakup rejoinders begin with Mr. Know It All and rarely let up, least of all with the likely second single, What Doesn't Kill You (Stronger), a soon-to-break-out dance track in which Clarkson all but declares that I, the Nietzschean superman, will survive.
(Never mind how tired that tune's titular phrase is. For a laugh, look up the YouTube video in which some wag mashed together a medley of 30 different songs that already borrowed That which does not kill me makes me stronger as a lyrical hook. Compared to this, Britney's Hold It Against Me is based on an original thought.)
Stronger really does get stronger as it goes along.
The rocker Einstein sounds like it might've been written for Pink, though it probably wasn't, since Clarkson gets a co-writing credit. Against guitar squalls and live drums, she does the romantic math (Our love divided by the square root of pride...It was heavy when I finally figured it out) and concludes that dumb plus dumb equals you, a formula that will surely help kids get interested in arithmetic this fall.
Two albums ago, on the underrated My December, Clarkson seemed to be indulging an Amy Lee complex, and it returns with a brilliant vengeance on the hyper-dramatic Honestly, a far better Evanescence song than anything on the new Evanescence album.
Dark Side cleverly reinforces the idea that Miss American Idol has a shadow side with a spooky music-box melody that cuts in every time the big beat and goth histrionics briefly cut out. By contrast, I Forgive You sounds like nothing but power-pop fun, even though its Cars-style rock riffage and synth gurgles lead into a surprisingly cathartic expression of absolution.
The best is saved for almost last: You Can't Win, another guitar-driven barnstormer, benefits from a series of exceedingly sharp verses that prove why modern life is just like Vietnam: If you're thin/Poor little walking disease/If you're not/They're screaming disease, goes one couplet, and the woman knows whereof she speaks. If you dump, so ungrateful/And if you're happy, why so selfish?/You can't win...
Oh, but she can. Stronger has its cake and eats it, too -- by marrying pure ear-candy arrangements to Clarkson's flawless, effortlessly fluid soul-rock vocals, and by embedding vividly conjured emotions in up-tempo tunes that never get too bogged down in their own seriousness. Thanks to records like this, ten years later, she's still the only Idol that matters.