Sunday, January 6, 2013

American Performer Kelly Clarkson Succeeds With The Breakaway

The Good: Good voice, Some decent music and production, Some decent lyrics
The Bad: Some forgettable tracks, Moments of schmaltz
The Basics: A solid and satisfying vocally-driven pop-rock album by one of the truly talented performers in the United States today.

I've never seen American Idol, mostly because I despise the whole reality t.v. movement (as any writer with self respect ought to!) and because for the most part I saw American Idol as redundant. American Idol seeks to showcase young talent and get it recording contracts based on the will of the american people (mostly that key teen c.d. buying demographic from 12 - 19). Outside the inherent problem of wooing producers and record labels (which I understand is what cuts down the career of 99.9% of the legitimate artists in the world before they may begin), the public already fulfills the function of American Idol whenever it buys compact discs. It's the reason that Madonna continues to sell albums and Michael Jackson does not. It's the reason there are musical movements - this year boy bands, this year solo young women, etc. - and why Heather Nova no longer releases albums in the U.S.; the music industry is heavily market-driven. Even without watching American Idol, it was obvious even to me why - when it came time to parody the phenomenon - writer-director Paul Weitz would model his contestant for American Dreamz (reviewed here!) after Clarkson.

Kelly Clarkson has talent. It's hard to deny that, even for one who despises pop-music and mainstream culture. She has the ability to sing and, as she proves on Breakaway, she has the ability to write (or co-write) as well. Breakaway marks Clarkson's step out of the spotlight she bought with American Idol. With five radio/charting singles, Breakaway is an impressive endeavor.

Kelly Clarkson's Breakaway is a twelve-track pop-rock album that wisely showcases the voice of Clarkson front and center. Clarkson is on the border between performer and musical artist. Clarkson is credited as co-writer of six of the twelve tracks and to her credit, three of the five singles released off the album ("Behind These Hazel Eyes," "Because Of You," and "Walk Away") were co-written by her. This suggests that Clarkson is succeeding, at least in part, on the basis of her own creative vision.

The extent of that, however, is subject to debate. Clarkson does not play any instruments on Breakaway and while there are strong implications that she is integral to the writing (i.e. she has hazel eyes, so it seems likely she had a lot to do with the poetics of "Behind These Hazel Eyes") of the lyrics, there's nothing to indicate how much influence she had in writing the music she sings. Indeed, since I first heard "Because Of You," the music sounded familiar. It's not credited to a previously released song, but it is clearly derivative of a previous pop-rock song (this has been bugging me for months).

Regardless, Clarkson and her co-writers are able lyricists. Clarkson is able to express her emotions well with such lines as ". . . Now all that's left of me / Is what I pretend to be / So together but so broken up inside / Cause I can't breathe / No I can't sleep / I'm barely hanging on . . ." ("Behind These Hazel Eyes"). Even the non-radio tracks have something to say and they do it well. "Where Is Your Heart" poignantly addresses desire with the questions, ". . . Is it so hard to give me what I need / I want your heart to bleed / And that's all I'm asking for / Where is your heart?"

Conversely, it did not at all surprise me to find in the liner notes that Clarkson's hit song Breakaway was co-written by Avril Lavigne (I suppose the lines "Trying hard to reach out / But when I tried to speak out . . ." should have been a flare). But that brings us to Clarkson's real talent. She can sing. Unlike Lavigne, who has worked for years to appeal to a young, angry, poser-punk crowd, Clarkson has harnessed a down-home good girl image based on a projected level of emotional honesty that resonates with her listeners. Her prime method for doing this has been through singing vocally-strong ballads that illustrate range and voice.

Kelly Clarkson pulls off Breakaway, which sounds very much like an Avril Lavigne song because of her vocal range. It comes naturally to Clarkson and the lyrics are not as rebellious and in-your-face as Lavigne's usual fare, making it more convincing from Clarkson. Clarkson's range is impressive and well-presented on Breakaway (the album). Despite the irritatingly derivative sound of "Because Of You," Clarkson's vocal range is impressive and makes the song a legitimate hit.

For the most part, Clarkson's voice is not overwhelmed by production elements or music that is backing her voice. The album's producer Clive Davis is attentive to keeping Clarkson's talents front and center. I was surprised at how like Evanescence Clarkson's song "Addicted" is and I have to admit to being impressed with the size of the sound of it.

Still, this is in many ways the typical pop-rock album. The songs deal almost universally with love or the dissolution of relationships. It is emotionally-driven poetry that generally appeals to fans of mainstream Top 40 music. In short, there are moments where it is overly emotive, intending to tug the heartstrings of the listener and in that way it's easy to see why it has such strong teen appeal.

My final recommendation for this is based on the fact that Clarkson's talent is well-presented, well-used and she offers a somewhat smarter brand of pop music than the usual mainstream blah. At some point, Kelly Clarkson will release a Greatest Hits album and if she's honest about it, five tracks from Breakaway will be on it. At that time, this album might become irrelevant as the best tracks ARE the five that were on the radio. Still, the album is generally satisfying and complete, with little track to track quality difference.

No one's more surprised than me.

The best track is the ballad "Behind These Hazel Eyes" (despite the weird video for it!), the weakest track is "You Found Me," which left almost no impression.

For other works by American Idol performers, check out my reviews of:
My December - Kelly Clarkson
Daughtry - Daughtry
Katherine McPhee - Katherine McPhee


Check out how this album stacks up against others I have reviewed by visiting my Music Review Index Page for a listing from best to worst!

© 2013, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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