Kelly Clarkson feuded with RCA Records and Clive Davis since the moment she won American Idol in 2002, a victory which locked her into a contract with a label where she never really felt at home. Now unencumbered by RCA, Clarkson made the record she dreamed of recording since she auditioned for Idol with a cover of “At Last” – an album she hoped Aretha Franklin would have made if she was recording today.
Clarkson referred to her deal with RCA as an “arranged marriage” – and quite a successful one at that. She scored huge hits like “Since U Been Gone” and “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)”, which made it tougher for her to depart from the power pop genre and return to what she thought of as her natural home in R&B. Her new album, Meaning of Life, is her first record for Atlantic, and she is pitching it as the first one that expresses her actual taste in music.
The album contains several Adele-like arrangements that also evoke Whitney Houston. In “I Don’t Think About You,” Clarkson sings “I was patient but not anymore / It’s back in my hands,” which seems to refer to her arranged business marriage as much as an old flame. “You swore I’d never do it / But it’s your time to face the music.”
Rather than leaning into her rock reputation, Clarkson goes for an R&B style that is at once relaxed yet pulsing with drive. It’s certainly a more soulful turn, and one that reminds you just how amazing and enormous Clarkson’s voice really is, accompanied now by horns, heavy grooves and gospel-infused organs.
Clarkson’s prior oeuvre was marked by tightly produced songs. The production here is looser, allowing the singer more room to riff. This effect is best on the song “Cruel,” which is appealingly retro. The production is still a bit more orchestrated than it should be; one imagines Clarkson’s team will take some time in determining how much they can really let the new style soar.
On “Slow Dance,” she refers to her marriage to Brandon Blackstock. “How did you go from being a mama’s boy to a ladies’ man? / I’m not going home with you tonight but you can hold my hand.”
Other than that song, however, Clarkson seems to avoid specifics regarding the major changes in her own life since her last full album: her marriage, birth of their two children, and becoming step-mother to two more. The album could have benefitted from fewer generalities and more specifics, whether autobiographical or not. Clarkson only wrote four of the album’s songs. Still, the album is a breath of fresh air for an artist who has been fighting to escape the Idol mold for more than a decade.
“I don’t know, I feel like in my 20s it was hurdle after hurdle, and now I just get to pick the fun things I want to do. I get to work with the people I want to work with and I get to sing the music I want to sing,” said Clarkson.
The comfort is there on the song “Whole Lotta Woman,” which she says is her favorite song to perform. “It is literally, in my years of singing either my songs or other people’s songs, it’s my favorite song to perform ever. The whole band says that, too. The brass, the horns and the girls’ [vocals] are just next-level sassy.” That sassiness is right in Clarkston’s comfort zone.
Meaning of Life is out on October 27.