Is Kelly’s December Worth Your Summer?

By now, everyone’s heard the backstory. Kelly Clarkson released two very successful albums making a largely inoffensive blend of pop/rock/adult contemporary music. With success, Kelly felt the urge to follow her own artistic road and make an album on her terms. When she was done, label boss Clive Davis, looking after his bottom line like all intelligent businessmen do, decided that there wasn’t a hit pop single on the album and asked Kelly to record a couple of songs he chose. Kelly balked, and a classic David vs. Goliath battle began. Or something like that.

The hype has been deafening. From Clive and Kelly butting heads, the situation has snowballed to include an under performing first single, a canceled tour, and the pending ruination of Kelly Clarkson’s career and the greater music world. This annoys me in several ways. First, Kelly’s not the first artist to go to war with their label head, and the whole thing smacks vaguely of a PR stunt. Those who chastise Clive Davis don’t seem to be able to grasp the concept that he’s protecting his company’s investment. Artists who balk at restrictions placed on them have no such qualms when their pen is dancing across the million-dollar contract. But I digress…

Ultimately, it comes down to this: is Kelly Clarkson’s My December worth your time or not?

My December is the first completely listenable album of Kelly Clarkson’s career.

Her first album, Thankful, attempted to slot her into as many subgenres as possible to find one that stuck. The follow-up, Breakaway, was a good album (although completely undeserving of its Best Pop Album Grammy, which Daddy Clive probably campaigned heavily for), but it was a classic example of great singles and filler. And even the singles (yes, even Since U Been Gone) took repeated listens for me to appreciate them. Unlike those albums, My December has continuity. It’s the statement of an artist, rather than a collection of pop singles. It’s ballsy, for sure; there’s no way in hell this sells half as well as Breakaway, but most true artists eventually sacrifice commercial appeal to follow their muse.

Kelly Clarkson Breaks Away From The Past

All this is not to say that Kelly has suddenly turned around and made a Tori Amos or Bjork album. All in all, December is still fairly accessible. There isn’t one immediate hit single here, but there is plenty of ear candy. The sound is vaguely poppy, but there is a much more pronounced rock influence. Many of the songs here can be compared to pop/rock divas past (Pat Benatar) and present (Pink, minus the sense of humor).

Thematically, it’s obvious that some dude REALLY pissed Kelly off, and that over reliance on done-me-wrong songs takes away slightly from my enjoyment of the album. My December is not a break-up album in the tradition of Tunnel Of LoveHere, My Dear or even Jagged Little Pill, the album that this album will get most frequently compared to.

Rather than questioning the wheres and whys of the end of a relationship, My December is basically 13 (actually, 14) songs of “you did me wrong, motherfucker…and now you’re going to PAY!”  That sentiment is evident from the very first line of the very first song on the album: “I hope the ring you gave her turns her finger green.”  Nothing wrong with feeling burnt and wanting vengeance, but after a certain point you want to just say “give it up, already!”

A good deal of the songs on this album strike a decent balance between melodic accessibility and grit. Don’t Waste Your Time has a chorus of background vocals that makes it a good summer driving singalong.  Yeah would fight Don’t Waste Your Time for a spot on that summer mix tape, with a balls-out release of a chorus and a peppy horn chart adding spice onto a weird arrangement that finds the song alternately picking up and dropping in tempo. One Minute adds a bit of a dance flair to the pop/rock proceedings (this would have been a much better choice as the first single), while How I Feel has a vaguely pogo-ish feel and a vocal that suggests a slightly less nasal Belinda Carlisle. First single Never Again has a wailing vocal from Kelly and sounds almost completely identical to your average Pat Benatar song circa 1982. Much like just about every Kelly Clarkson single in existence, I wasn’t too crazy about it at first, but it’s grown on me.

Don’t forget Kelly won American Idol, which is sort of a singing competition (right?). One thing I can definitely not fault is her vocal ability. Even though some of the songs degenerate into “I hate you, you ruined my life” cliche, she sings the shit out of every single track. Her abilities are most evident on this album’s ballads, which thankfully tone down the bombast and focus on her pretty voice. The gentle pulse of  Be Still unveils Kelly’s sensual side, while the ethereal strings, gradual buildup and mostly restrained vocal of Sober gives the album it’s best track. In a just world, it would be a huge hit.  Should, not will.

My December is definitely a risky move for Kelly. The little girls who sang  Because Of You and  Walk Away into their hairbrushes are very likely going to be puzzled and turned off by Kelly’s less accessible melodies and lyrics. However, My December makes a strong bid to present Kelly as an artist as opposed to a song stylist.  The album isn’t perfect —  the overblown, tuneless Judas will NOT be entering my iTunes library — and it is somewhat derivative, but it is her most consistently enjoyable album so far. Kelly Clarkson deserves props for trusting her vision and not going the easy route by recording Since U Been Gone X 12.

Go ‘head, Kelly. Fight the power.