For months, rumors about the power struggles behind Kelly Clarkson's third album, My December, have far outpaced talk about what the record actually sounds like.
Between the split with her manager, the postponement of her summer tour last week (see "Kelly Clarkson Calls Off Summer Tour") and the flood of articles about how Clarkson has butted heads with label boss Clive Davis over the darker, more rock-oriented direction of December (see "Kelly Clarkson On Rumored Label Squabble: 'I Always Stick To My Guns' "), the one thing not many people have discussed is the music (see "Kelly Clarkson On Her Revealing New LP: 'I'm Not Even This Open With Boyfriends!' ").
So let's get this out of the way right now: December is without a doubt Kelly Clarkson's vision. It's the sound of a pop princess breaking her crown and not being afraid to tell the world exactly how that feels. It is not a metal album or some kind of freak-folk/downbeat-techno mash-up.
And in a preview of the album on Monday night in Century City, California for a taping of "Nissan Live Sets on Yahoo! Music," Clarkson joked about her label battles during breaks from rocking the stage with a powerful mini-set that boded well for the scaled-down tour she's expected to launch later this year. (Check out a recap of the show.)
"It's not about making people upset," she said, referring to taking creative control of her album. "It's about not settling. ... Nobody wants a sequel to Breakaway, because sequels are never as good as the first one."
Certainly the album's bitter first single, "Never Again" ("I hope the ring you gave to her turns her finger green"), ratchets up the aggression level higher than anything on Clarkson's previous two outings. After songwriting collaborations with former Evanescence co-founder Ben Moody on 2004's Breakaway, it's not surprising that some December songs have a hard-rocking, almost industrial/goth sound.
And where the Breakaway tunes "Behind These Hazel Eyes" and "Gone" also soared on crunchy guitars, driving beats and anthemic, agitated choruses, December songs like the grimy rock tune "Hole" take those elements and dirty them up even more ("There's a hole inside of me/ It's so cold/ Slowly killing me").
Befitting of the now-25-year-old Clarkson, the grungier songs she wrote with her touring band add a sense of urgency and a real taste of messy heartbreak that rise above the more generic, radio-ready emotional hangnails cooked up by a committee of hired tunesmiths.
Like "Never Again," the piston-pumping gloomy dance tune "One Minute" is a snarling tale of love lost, spiced with the kind of robotic keyboard and fuzzed-out guitar typically heard on albums by bands like Garbage.
Clarkson's voice comes in many shades on the album, switching up from a slightly scratchy rumble to her signature diva rebel yell on the midtempo "Can I Have a Kiss." She slips into an eerie Amy Lee ghost-whisper-to-a-scream on "Haunted," a thrashing goth-rocker that could have been an Evanescence B-side.
Is she angry? Has she been betrayed? Without a doubt. If the title "Judas" doesn't say it clearly enough, the desperate, headlong charge of that track — on which Clarkson bellows, "I couldn't see/ Never thought you'd forget me," over a wall of guitars and ominous keyboard blips — should pound the point home.
But despite its billing, the album is not all rage and angst. One of the reminders of the Clarkson of old is the bouncy "How I Feel," a summery, sugary girl-group tune that wouldn't have been out of place on one of the singer's previous albums. Except, that is, for the line about how all the good men are married and she's sick of hearing about their wonderful lives and trophy wives.
The spare ballad "Be Still" is about getting a new start. Over a trip-hop beat, subtle acoustic guitars and some glitchy-sounding electronics, a wounded Clarkson sensuously croons about being strong and picking yourself up when you fall down. The confessional unplugged tune "Maybe" could be the album's calling card, with Clarkson admitting in her husky, breathy voice, "I'm stubborn and I make plenty of mistakes."
Clarkson seemed willing to own up to some of those mistakes Monday night at her show, joking during a Q&A session that some of the people she likes at RCA Records were present, though the number of label people that she likes has been steadily shrinking lately.
The singer then tore into full-throttle versions of "Never Again," "Judas" and a slowly building "Sober," finishing up with "Since U Been Gone," which had the room jumping, screaming and waving their arms around.
While the lyrics of that song are about getting over a no-good lover, its carefree musical vibe is a world away on December's final track, on which the singer who won our hearts with a powerful, soulful voice and girl-next-door attitude uncorks an unadorned rasp that has never sounded quite this vulnerable. The spare acoustic lament "Irvine," has a Portishead feel courtesy of some ethereal slide guitar and a waltzing tempo, over which Clarkson sings, "Will you stay?/ Stay till the darkness leaves/ Stay here with me?"
It's tempting to want to freeze our favorite singers in amber, to hold them to the sound that first captured our hearts. But Clarkson, especially given her background as the first star spawned by the hit-making machinery of "American Idol," has clearly staked her ground as an artist who has a vision she intends to see through to the end, regardless of whose feathers she ruffles.
She's also made it clear that she realizes that the more mature, aggressive sound of December might not make sense to those 10-year-olds who waved signs bearing her name during her "Idol" run five years ago, or even on her last tour. But with her third album, Clarkson lays bare that while she's the same singer you fell in love with, she's not the same person she was — and that to pretend otherwise would be dishonest to herself and to her fans.
Want to hear what all the fuss is about? Check out Kelly Clarkson's My December — which is streaming right now, on MTV's "The Leak"!