TERRY GROSS, host:
Kelly Clarkson was the first person to take the top prize on "American Idol." Since that time she's had a number of big hits. Now she's back with her new album called "All I Ever Wanted". And rock critic Ken Tucker says what Clarkson seems to want are hits on her own terms.
(Soundbite of song, "I Do Not Hook Up")
Ms. KELLY CLARKSON (Singer): (Singing) Oh, sweetheart, put the bottle down, you've got too much talent, I see you through those bloodshot eyes, there's a cure, you've found it, slow motion, sparks, you've caught that chill, now don't deny it, but boys will be boys, oh, yes, they will, they don't wanna define it, just give up the game and get into me, if you're looking for thrills then get cold feet, Oh, no, I do not hook up, up, I go slow, so if you want me, I don't come cheap, keep your hand in my hand, your heart on your sleeve, oh, no, I do not hook up, up, I fall deep…
KEN TUCKER: Kelly Clarkson's big assertive voice was what won her "American Idol's" top prize. But she's done a lot of work tinkering with her music and her image. She's alternately embraced her instant pop stardom, rejected it, averted it and poked fun at it. "All I Ever Wanted" is easily her most enjoyable album to date because she does all these things at one point or another on it. Take the song that led off this review called "I Do Not Hook Up," and especially the album's unstoppable hit single "My Life Would Suck Without You".
(Soundbite of song, "My Life Would Suck Without You")
Ms. CLARKSON: (Singing) Guess this means you're sorry, you're standing at my door, guess this means you take back, all you said before, like how much you wanted, anyone but me, said you'd never come back, but here you are again, cuz we belong together now, forever united here somehow, you got a piece of me…
TUCKER: Now that's a single with everything going for it: A little guitar riff that gets absorbed into an electronic rhythm section only to be overwhelmed by Clarkson's swelling vocal. The result is a rock disco pop creation that just builds and builds until it explodes in its chorus. This is the way Clarkson first distinguished herself from her "American Idol" roots when her 2004 hit "Since U Been Gone" demonstrated that she didn't have to over sing or rely on pointless displays of melismatics to deliver a song effectively. It's a style she's honed well.
(Soundbite of song, "I Want You")
Ms. CLARKSON: (Singing) Hot temper with the shortest fuse, you're such a mess with an attitude, you're workin' hard but you're payin' more...you never talk 'cause you don't have to, you gotta job but you hate the man who takes it all like "Uncle Sam" I want you You, you, you, You, you, you I, I, I, I, I, I, I want you…
TUCKER: This album arrives with a back story. Her first record was a collaboration with lots of seasoned songwriters and producers who supplied her with power ballads galore. Some of them excellent, some of them hideous all of it commercially successful. Feeling her oats, she rebelled for her second outing, ditching the people who'd given her, her first hits and writing a lot of I'm a rebel, I'm in pain songs herself. That album tanked. And so this album "All I Ever Wanted" is seen as the great compromise - the comeback, the hard won lesson.
As she sings on the title song "All I Ever Wanted Was A Simple Way To Get Over You" that is, in a career context, a way to get past the idea that pleasing the public and pleasing herself were mutually exclusive notions.
(Soundbite of song, "All I Ever Wanted")
Ms. CLARKSON: (Singing) Tear up the photographs, but yesterday won't let go, every day, every day, every minute, here comes the emptiness, just can't leave lonely alone, every day, every day, hey, hey, this second-chancin's really getting me down, you give and taking everything I dreamed about, it's time you let me know, let me know just let go, all I ever wanted, all I ever wanted, was a simple way to get over you, all I ever wanted, all I ever wanted…
TUCKER: Clarkson constantly finds ways to (unintelligible) the travails of ordinary people in which group she includes herself. She knows that the anguish she likes to sing about is enjoyed by millions of people as grandiose admissions of vulnerability. Yet the music that delivers that message is anything but vulnerable. There's a reason they call them power ballads: a sad song blasted at full volume is a metaphor for finding strength in pain.
(Soundbite of song, "Already Gone")
Ms. CLARKSON: (Singing) I want you to know, it doesn't matter where we take this road, someone's gotta go, and I want you to know, you couldn't have loved me better, but I want you to move on, so I'm already gone…
TUCKER: Kelly Clarkson is unique among "American Idol" graduates in that she doesn't appear in the gossip columns and her image - something the TV show is designed to cultivate as much as it does music - she's kept that deliberately fuzzy. What this means for her music is that she's still not locked into one style or one mood. For a manufactured pop star, she's achieved an impressive amount of creative freedom. Her pain is our pleasure and you get the idea that that's just the way she wants it to be.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor at large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Kelly Clarkson's new CD "All I Ever Wanted." Coming up, finding the words to describe Bernie Madoff and other Wall Street miscreants. We hear from our linguist Geoff Nunberg. This is FRESH AIR.
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