Scott, To Be Certain


Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Album Review: Kelly Clarkson's My December

Do not be fooled: this is not a Christmas album.

In the Clarksonian calendar, December is not a festive month. Instead, it signals the start of a season reserved for wistful lament and bitter diatribe in equal measures. We know this partly through the mood set by Clarkson herself before the album's release (by publicly trumpeting her acrimonious scuffle with BMG chairman Clive Davis over the album's content - more on that later), but principally because this long player - Clarkson's third - wears the winter of its discontent on its proverbial sleeve.

And quite literally, too: in addition to the glorious cover which I've already fawned over at length, the album sleeve photos depict an appropriately bleak landscape through a variety of wintry motifs (drying leaves! snow! open window - mind the draught!). Add to that an alarming Clarkson smile quotient of zero, and you've got all the makings of a veritable wrist-slicer.

But Clarkson is not out to alienate us. Over the course of the record her discontent unveils itself to be every bit as compelling and richly textured in hues of angst, betrayal and despair as any work in the Shakespearean oeuvre (if ever so slightly less literary in execution - more on that later, too). Clarkson desperately wants to share herself with us, inviting us inside in more ways than one, as these liner shots show.

Kelly Clarkson: apparently impervious to draughts

To borrow from the Idol lexicon, Clarkson's journey has been an interesting one. She began her career air-brushed and photo-morphed within an inch of her life on a stylistic hotch-potch of a first album which cast her as a happy, miniature doilie-loving Mariah (Thankful) before sexing up her image (blonde! windy photographic shoots!), appropriating her own sound and delivering one of the finest pop albums of the decade (Breakaway).

It's virtually impossible to adequately convey how the soul-crushing precedent set by Breakaway's global sales of 12,000,000+ must impede expectations of My December. Clive Davis reportedly offered Clarkson $10m to change but 5 songs on this collection to guarantee it a shot at securing the same favourable reception enjoyed by its predecessor. She refused, citing the risk in prioritising sales ahead of credibility.

Now we all know that history is littered with the woeful sophomore output of one-note artists attempting to align their egos with their initial success. Listening to the first taste of My December - the initial angst-ridden single Never Again - seemed like the latest addition to a long line, a textbook reinforcement of why excellent pop artists should never be allowed near a songwriting manual without proper guidance: embittered, vengeful, amateur Alanis-style lyrics fronting Benetar-style she-rock with decidedly more negativity and far less innovation than anything on the ground-breaking Breakaway.

Well, it turns out the first single sounds a whole lot better as part of this surprisingly cohesive, very current, artistic whole, and an appealing one at that. The following track-by-track analysis is designed to guide you through the minefield that is the latest offering from the planet's best Idol alumna.

Never Again
Don't be repelled by the bratty "Generation Y" self-righteousness of this first single. It rewards repeat listens, its puerile lyricism masked by kindred musical spirits that follow. There's the infectiously percussive middle 8, and the mesmerising bass guitar of Billy Mohler (of Liz Phair fame) is particularly enjoyable, especially at the start of verse 2: "If she really knows the truth, she deserves you/A trophy wife: how cute!" (Although I prefer to imagine Kelly is saying "A true UFO: how cute.") Rating: 8/10

One Minute
The album standout by a country mile and any other similar outmoded but still relevant measurement: this simply MUST be the 3rd single. Co-written by Canadian songstress Chantal Kreviazuk and her husband Michael Raine Maida - formerly of ace rock band Our Lady Peace (who with Kreviazuk improbably wrote "Revolution" for the Veronicas) - this belter is the most immediate and commercially polished work on the album, as well as the most impressive. Lasting decidedly longer than one minute, the song is neatly compartmentalised - 1st verse + chorus in Minute 1, 2nd verse + chorus in Minute 2, bridge + chorus in Minute 3, coming in at a completely random 3:01. Rating: 10/10

Not an ode to Courtney Love, but instead clearly one of the 5 woeful tracks referred to by Clive Davis. "There's a hole inside of me/It's so cold, slowly killing me". In that case it may pay not to publicly invite winter into your vagina, love. Rating: 3.5/10

This defiant 2nd single is not a cover of the Jennifer Paige classic, but has instead polarised radio in the US, despite being a slow guitar- and string-driven ballad. In many ways the spare melodic progression of this song mirrors the similarly ambitious "Butterflies" from Natalie Imbruglia's brilliant but commercially limp "White Lilies Island" sophomore release - minus the purple terror candy, since this is after all about sobriety. Clarkson's falsetto and the delayed percussion (coming in only after 3 minutes have elapsed) combine to form a brave and memorable emotional crescendo, both in terms of this album and her career. This is the song going through Clarkson's head as she languishes at the bottom of the stairs. Rating: 8.5/10

Don't Waste Your Time
Oops. Whenever Clarkson's penchant for acoustic melody threatens to announce her as a pretender to the mantle occupied by Sheryl Crow for 13 years, her bullshit lyrics come along and ruin everything. The song's title is a helpful warning. 3.5/10

Have you ever been low? Have you ever had a friend that let you down so? Clarkson has, and she's not afraid to remind us. This song is surprisingly clever on a lyrical level, the centrally hypnotic "You deceived/You deceived" reproducing a sound not entirely dissimilar to 'Judas'. If Davis has based his enitre view of Clarkson's alleged pessimism on this, he's blown his load too early: this is mature, pop-savvy sorrow at the highest level. Rating: 7.5/10

Where the creaky, echo-fueled crevices of Clarkson's musicianship attempt to emblematically justify themselves by way of her cobweb-covered cunt. Random Christian rock will serve you better. 2.5/10

Be Still
The most disarming track on the album: an affecting, out-of-left-field atmospheric lament, brilliantly showcasing Clarkson's vocal range. Assuming One Minute is rightfully chosen as 3rd single, this could be a subsequent contender (along with Maybe and How I Feel). Rating: 8.5/10

This album has revealed a real strength in Clarkson's ear for acoustic, guitar-driven dirges. This song is a painfully honest, plaintive reflection on her shortcomings as prospective partner, with vocal vulnerability no peer can boast. Rating: 8/10

How I Feel
Clarkson has an issue with trophy wives: this song features her 2nd gripe with them. Not surprising, perhaps, for a realistically proportioned celebrity. But there's an almost New Wave-feel to this effort, principally conveyed by the muted background vocals resting behind the middle 8. "This fire is getting hot again/ But I touch the flame, 'cos I'm a curious cat..." Rating: 8/10

Since the opening bars of this song seem more at home on a Lenny Kravitz long-player, we immediately know there is something askew. Improbably, in current pop chart terms this works in favour of Mutya Buena, but not Clarkson. Some view this as evidence of Clarkson's inner sex-bomb, but instead I find it grossly incongruous. The worst song on the album. 2.5/10

Can I Have A Kiss?
Another under-stated minor gem. Moving forward Clarkson should really work at harnessing her clearly intuitive prowess with Crow-like acoustic hooks, since it's underpinned all her output since Low. Truly memorable. Rating: 7.5/10

Achingly sparse and incomparably intimate, this song features a vocal so raw and vulnerable you can almost scrape Clarkson's emotion off your skin. This kind of earnestness is impossible to reproduce. Rating: 9.5/10

Chivas (Hidden Track)
The only song on the album written solely by Clarkson. Following and mirroring Irvine's tender, gentle vocal, this song is a good example of the direction Clarkson should head in as her songwriting skills develop: cheeky, melodic guitar-pop. She re-invented female pop-rock but it's time to move on. This is playful fun: "It wasn't even good/Trust me!" Rating: 6.5/10

Overall Rating: 7/10
So there you have it. This is a woman with a gift, capturing the sound of the present, who clearly prefers to give than receive. Not a Christmas album, then, but something worth celebrating nonetheless. Besides, who can begrudge a wistful brunette with full-bodied hair in a strapless velvet hoop dress?

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  • At 8:02 PM, June 28, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Disagree Scott - Yeah is the best track on there - less immediate sure but if you're going to recognize her bravery then you should give the less obvious ones a chance like you did Never Again. Good call on the Imbruglia reference.

  • At 12:26 PM, June 29, 2007, Anonymous Jed said…

    Clarkson is a seasonal imperialist. Should've been re-named to "My June" in these parts.

  • At 11:17 AM, June 30, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Damn you! I am partway through writing my track-by-track review and you've said most of what I wnated to say. Am very glad that someone else thinks that 'Hole' sounds like a song about an unwelcoming vagina, but now I can't write that without being a plagiarist. Bah!


  • At 1:00 AM, July 03, 2007, Blogger Kamikaze Camel said…

    "the sound of the present"? huh?

    "this song features a vocal so raw and vulnerable..." I guess some hear raw and vulnerable while others hear scratchy and in desperate need of a lemsip.

  • At 9:36 AM, July 03, 2007, Blogger Scott said…

    KC - I will grant you my Christmas/gift theme was laboured!

    But on the rawness issue - Kelly's voice has always lent itself to Cosima-like raspiness when overused. This effect is doubled when she sings in a higher register, a choice she made for that song, I think, to contribute to its atmosphere of despair. I can't imagine that song sung with a clean, strong vocal, can you?


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