Despite all the buildup and hype, “American Idol” has yielded only a few artists who’ve been able to sustain a successful, high-profile career in the music industry. First season winner Kelly Clarkson is at the top of that list.
In the 15 years since she won the reality show, Clarkson has delivered seven smash albums, all of which made the top three on Billboard, with three hitting no. 1: (“Thankful,” “All I Ever Wanted,” and her last album, 2015’s “Piece by Piece”). She has also scored 11 top 10 singles, including three chart-toppers: “A Moment Like This,” “My Life Would Suck Without You” and “Stronger.”
Her eighth album, “Meaning of Life,” is her first with Atlantic Records following the completion of the contract with RCA that was part of her “American Idol” prize. It’s no secret that Clarkson has clashed repeatedly with RCA over creative decisions. One of the key selling points offered by Atlantic to lure the star into its fold was more creative freedom and on “Meaning of Life,” Clarkson clearly makes the most of her newfound control. There is a maturity and depth of feeling to the new album that is sometimes lacking in her prior efforts, which tend to be directed primarily to top 40 radio. “Meaning of Life” is different. It’s not as hooky and loaded with radio-friendly dance/pop, yet it might very well be the finest album of her career thus far.
“Meaning of Life” is more soulful and R&B-influenced than Clarkson’s prior work, although it’s still very much a pop album. Clarkson showcases her powerful and dynamic vocals throughout, delivering one mighty performance after another. First single “Love So Soft” is a bare-bones funk/dance track built mainly around a stark electronic rhythm. It’s irresistibly catchy, a bold first taste of Clarkson’s change in sonic direction. It’s followed by “Heat,” a pop/R&B scorcher with Clarkson’s voice as soulful as it’s ever been.
Her ballads are particularly noteworthy for the maturity they exhibit compared with her prior work. The gospel-tinged “Move You” is a stunner, with a spine-tingling vocal that is every bit as magnificent as something Adele might perform. The old-school soul-inspired “Cruel” is another downtempo winner, with Clarkson showing her breezy versatility and range with effortless panache. The album has a decidedly modern sheen, but Clarkson does explore retro influences on several tracks, particularly the dynamic “Medicine” which channels mid-’90s Mariah Carey. The audaciously bold “Whole Lotta Woman,” a fusion of Beyonce and Christina Aguilera, is Clarkson embracing her new direction with passion and ferocity.
One of the album’s highlights is the triumphant “I Don’t Think About You,” a stirring ballad that serves as Clarkson’s declaration of independence. It’s a piercing track that seems directly aimed at those at RCA who prodded her in directions she did not want to go. She revels in her freedom and proclaims she has nothing to prove (and she’s right). Clarkson ends the album “Get High,” a fiery rave-up that once again speaks to her fierce determination to follow her own path.
“Meaning of Life” is a turning point in Clarkson’s career. Now 35 and suddenly able to pursue her own musical ambitions, she has turned to a more mature and sophisticated sound. The songs are still catchy and there’s little doubt she would welcome massive commercial success, but it’s clear she is no longer aiming just for the youthful top 40 crowd. Clarkson has become the artist she always wanted to be. Her exuberance and confidence shine through this album from start to finish, and it’s wonderful to hear. In a year of largely disappointing high-profile pop albums, Kelly Clarkson’s “Meaning of Life” is a welcome exception.