Friday, December 23, 2011

My December: Kelly Clarkson's Mediocre Mix Of Decent Pop Ballads And Louder Straightforward Rock Tracks.

The Good: Moments of voice, Moments of music, Moments of lyrics/themes
The Bad: Many of the tunes are very safe and familiar, Somewhat generic pop sound, Often overproduced
The Basics: With Kelly Clarkson's My December, we have an album one suspects the best tracks from which will eventually end up on a "best of" album, negating interest in this one.

Six years ago if someone had told me that I would have listened to all of the first American Idol winner's subsequent compact discs, I would have told them they were crazy. I have a well-documented disdain for reality television shows and I don't believe I've even ever sat through an episode of American Idol. And yet, I seem to have heard all of Kelly Clarkson's albums now that I have My December in my c.d. player for the seventh time this week. My only American Idol note is that Clarkson seems to be pretty intent on proving my original thesis: that whomever won the first American Idol competition would have the greatest success because that person was most driven to risk everything on the untested idea as opposed to simply following a trend.

My December represents Kelly Clarkson's growth into a well-rounded musical artist who is essentially forced to fight for her own musical vision. With fourteen tracks (including the hidden one attached to the final song) clocking in at just over fifty-one minutes, My December represents a work that is very purely the endeavor of Kelly Clarkson. In addition to taking a co-executive producer position on the album, Clarkson sings all the songs, all of which were co-written by Clarkson. While Clarkson does not play a single instrument on the album, her writing and producing credits imply that the album released carried content she was generally happy with.

As a musical artist separate from the whole reality television experience, Kelly Clarkson is most marketable for her voice. Clarkson has a great voice in the alto range and she gets a little huskier with the force of her presentation on several songs on My December. As well, she goes higher on several songs, like the end of "Maybe," lending a sweet sound to the vocals of "Be Still" and "Sober." When her voice is within her range and utilized well, Clarkson has a decent voice and one that is one that is a clear instrument.

The problem is that Clarkson seems far too willing to be derivative vocally on this album. Every time I hear her track "How I Feel," I swear I am listening to a track by Pink! Having suffered through the angsty You Can't Take Me Home this is not something I am eager to hear. Yet, vocally, Clarkson seems to determined to capture the anger and intensity of the pop/hip-hop artist. Similarly, she bears a vocal resemblance to the pop stylings of Shania Twain's pop works on moments of "Can I Have A Kiss." It's strange to hear Clarkson be vocally derivative as she usually presents such a straightforward - if blandly overproduced - presentation.

And on My December there is less vocal production than on some of Clarkson's prior endeavors, which is a good thing. On tracks like "Irvine" Clarkson's voice radiates with a clarity and an undeniable inherent quality that makes it easy to believe that she could well endure in the marketplace because of her innate talent. She overcomes all of her instrumental accompaniment on the song and it is a beautiful thing to hear a young, fresh voice presenting itself naturally.

Unfortunately for Clarkson, it is only on the very quiet tracks that her voice is able to resonate and radiate with the clarity and evidence of talent. Half the album - at least - has louder tracks with Clarkson belting out lyrics to angry guitars ("Never Again" and "Don't Waste Your Time"), being dominated by drums ("Hole") and subsumed by the production elements ("Yeah"). In many ways the rock tracks are noisy and typical of what we expect from a very generic and bland pop-rock experience. The guitar riff repeated ad nauseam through "Yeah" and drown with the same sounds as the brass is chaotic.

In this fashion, My December gets off to a bad start. The pounding drums and loud guitars of "Never Again" easily overcome most of Clarkson's voice and instantly establish a sound that is both unpleasant and familiar. When it is not loud, thrashing and banging, "Never Again" is rather bland pop-rock performing. The bass and drums sound programmed (they aren't) because they present such a regular, straightforward and utterly unimaginative tune.

At least "Never Again" has a tune. "One Minute" is an unpleasant, barely musical collection of keyboards, bass, drums and a guitar all competing to drown out Clarkson's bleating. The net effect is a track that is confused and so busy that it loses any sense of message. Instead, it is a wall of sound that drags the listener through a musically murky territory and deposits them in a place where they are left unsure of what they might have actually heard.

Far more troubling than any musical chaos on My December is the repetitive quality to some of the slower songs. "Sober" and "Be Still" have almost the same melody and feel to them. In addition, the final hidden track has a similar acoustic sound to it as "Be Still," making all three tracks sound so similar as to be bothersome. "Be Still" opens with a programming progression and guitars that is instantly evocative of something by John Mayer. That kind of non-threatening pop music has a generic sound to it and that is not what I tend to look for from what I listen to.

Fortunately, there are some surprises for the listener and most of them come in the lyrics to the songs, which might indicate that Clarkson has a talent for co-writing songs for herself. Among these is the pleasant surprise of hearing a teen-pop artist singing, "Three months and I'm still sober / Picked all my weeds but kept the flowers / But I know it's never really over / And I don't know / I could crash and burn but maybe / At the end of this road I might catch a glimpse of me" ("Sober"). Yes, an artist singing about not solving breakup problems with drugs and alcohol. As stale as it is to say, I think that's cool and it promotes a positive attitude. Clarkson actually says something positive with the song: no matter how bad it is, it's possible to get through it all.

Lyrically, Clarkson seems to get more intimate with her haunting spirit on "Irvine," the sense of betrayal of standing by one who does not appreciate her efforts ("Judas"), and the desire to make a life for herself with someone new ("Be Still"). She illustrates surprising spite to open the album, singing "I hope the ring you gave to her turns her finger green / I hope when you're in bed with her, you think of me / I would never wish bad things but I don't wish you well" ("Never Again") and that is an interesting choice. Despite the musical presentation of that, the lyrics are intriguing.

The only problem is that on some of the tracks Clarkson gets a bit repetitive and in the most obvious ways. On "Don't Waste Your Time," she mortgages a sense of meaning and layering the song with a catchy hook. She repeats - over and over again - "it's over" and the title on "Don't Waste Your Time" that the more clever lines, like ". . . my friend / Friend, what does that even mean / I don't want your hand / You'll only pull me down." It seems like Clarkson has a much more firm grasp on writing and themes, even if she drowns them with some of her repetitions of refrains.

My December is a youthful exploration of the emotions of a woman who has been hurt before but does not want to continue being in pain and thematically, the album is fairly interesting. Her musical expression consists of pleading for fair consideration and real love, but a refusal to open up to the same one who has hurt her in the past. That makes for an interesting album and one that is certainly worthy of a listen.

Unfortunately, it's not quite enough to recommend this average musical album. While there are moments, My December did not hold up over multiple listens (as I finish this review, I'm in the ninth listen to the album. The impression one gets from My December is that Kelly Clarkson has talent but she is unsure how to apply it to get the best out of it. She might have a voice, but she does not always use it well; she has lyrics that are good, but not great and appeal mostly to the mid-teen c.d. buying crowd. And as someone looking for pop-rock music to have some distinction, this is too disappointing.

The best track is "Sober," the low point is the overproduced and atonal "One Minute."

For other strong female vocalists, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Promised Land - Dar Williams
My Love: Ultimate Essential Collection - Celine Dion
21 - Adele


For other music reviews, please visit my Music Index Page!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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