TERRY GROSS, host: Kelly Clarkson was the first winner of the "American Idol" singing competition. Since that time, she's released five albums, including her new one called "Stronger." Ken Tucker listened to the new collection and finds that, once again, Clarkson frequently triumphs over the material she's singing.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORGIVE YOU")
KELLY CLARKSON: (Singing) I forgive you. I forgive me. Now when do I start to feel again? I forgive you. I forgive me. Now when do I start to feel again? 'Cause the lights are on, but I'm never home. But I'll be back with a brand new attitude. 'Cause I forgive you.
KEN TUCKER: Like a lot of successful "American Idol" contestants, Kelly Clarkson made her reputation as a belter, as someone who could project to the rafters to impress judges with her technique and rouse a crowd, none of which necessarily makes for a good pop singer. Ever since Bing Crosby started using the microphone as an instrument for achieving intimacy and nuance, the idea of delivering popular song as operatic aria is a flawed strategy. Nonetheless, everybody loves an anthem, right?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT DOESN'T KILL YOU")
CLARKSON: (Singing) You know, the bed feels warmer, sleeping here alone. You know I dream in color and do the things I want. Think you got the best of me? Think you've had the last laugh? Bet you think that everything good is gone and you left me broken down. Think that I'd come running back? Baby, you don't know me 'cause you're dead wrong. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.
TUCKER: This, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger is the underlying sentiment of virtually all Kelly Clarkson music. She's built her career around an explosive paradox: Her best hits are little time bombs of frayed emotions that throw off sparks, arriving stuffed in big cannonballs of sound. You can hear it on "You Can't Win," a burst of spiteful self-pity.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC "YOU CAN'T WIN")
CLARKSON: (Singing) If you go, they say you're following. If you don't then you're too good for them. If you smile you must be ignorant. If you don't, what's your problem? If you're down, so ungrateful and if you're happy, why so selfish then? You can't win. No, you can't win. No. The one who doesn't quite fit in, underdressed under your skin, oh, a walking disaster. Every time you try to fly...
TUCKER: Too often on this album, "Stronger," Clarkson has settled for second-rate material. She sometimes seems to be singing songs that Justin Timberlake rejected. How else to explain the choice of a song such as "Einstein," with its tortured, mathematically illiterate organizing metaphor? Some verses of the song are fun just because they're so ostentatiously foolish.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC "EINSTEIN")
CLARKSON: (Singing) Oh, simple math. Our love divided by the square root of pride. Multiply your lies plus time; I'm going out of my mind. It was heavy when I finally figured it out. Oh, no. I didn't get it the first time. But don't think I've been so blind. I may not be Einstein but I know dumb plus dumb equals you.
TUCKER: Dumb plus dumb equals you, Clarkson bellows there. On second thought, I kind of love that performance in its goofy way. Far better is the kind of crisp vocal work Clarkson brings to a vocal hook worthy of her dramatized agony. It's gloriously on display on the song "You Love Me," as Clarkson leaps registers from verse to chorus without ever making it seem like a mere stunt. Instead, it serves the arc of the emotions the singer wants to explore.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC "YOU LOVE ME")
CLARKSON: (Singing) Thick skin, soft touch. Heart of gold but it's na-na-na-not enough. Forgiving arms, the higher road. Working hard but it's na-na-na-not enough. You say I'm not good enough, I'm not good enough. But what you really mean is you're not good enough, you're not good enough. You can't deliver so you turn it around. You didn't let me down. You didn't tear me apart. You just opened my eyes while breaking my heart. You didn't do it for me. I'm not as dumb as you think. You just made me cry while claiming me that you love me. You love me. You love me. You said you love me but that I'm not good enough...
TUCKER: I'm not good enough, Clarkson sings in that song. On numerous other tracks, she goes back to the same idea - she feels condescended to, put down, humiliated by a lover or, by extension, an audience. Sometimes she lashes out, as she does in "Mr. Know It All."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC "MR. KNOW IT ALL")
CLARKSON: (Singing) Mr. Know it all, well, you think you know it all but you don't know a thing at all. Ain't it something, y'all, when somebody tells you something about you, think that they know more than you do. So you take it down, another pill to swallow. Mr. Bring me down, well, you...
TUCKER: That song features a fine Clarkson vocal, all the better for the stripped-down arrangement over which the singer allows you to hear a strain in her voice - it's what makes the refrain, "You don't know a thing about me" take on a kind of artistic truth. The song becomes a retort to the lover she's addressing, sure, but also to her critics, and to those fans who want to own her pain. The album could use more of this sort of gutsiness(ph).
Ultimately, "Stronger" is a weaker album than some of Clarkson's previous efforts, but its high points provide a reminder of why she can be so effective. She takes that huge voice and lets it loose, while maintaining a fierce control that creates a thrilling tension.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at "Entertainment Weekly." He reviewed Kelly Clarkson's new album called "Stronger." Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new collection of essays and reviews by the late film critic Pauline Kael. This is FRESH AIR.