"American Idol" is still on the air. In fact, Aretha Franklin will perform on Wednesday night's show, along with the top eight male contestants. As "American Idol" slumps ever closer to a complete lack of relevancy, though, inaugural idol Kelly Clarkson is still proving that the show once mattered.
"Piece by Piece," released Tuesday, cements Clarkson's reputation as one of the most consistently talented and competent pop artists of the 2000s. It's her first original album since 2011's "Stronger," though Clarkson released a Christmas album and a greatest hits compilation in the intervening years.
She also married talent manager Brandon Blackstock and had a daughter, River Rose, in that time. Her family's influence is evident in the more mature and less angsty tone of "Piece by Piece" compared to previous Clarkson works, most clearly in the title track.
It's dedicated to her husband, comparing him to Clarkson's father with lyrics like "piece by piece / he restored my faith / that a man could be kind / and a father could stay." Her parents divorced when she was a child, and her father was largely absent.
The album gets off to an upbeat start with the impossibly catchy "Heartbeat Song," a single that practically mandates singing along. The chorus, in which Clarkson promises to "take it up up up up all night long / oh up up all night long," sounds like the bup-bup-bup of a heartbeat, adding to the song.
Follow-up, "Invincible," is weak in comparison. It's a throwback to classic power ballads and wouldn't feel foreign coming out of Celine Dion's mouth, but the orchestral backing overwhelms even Clarkson's strong voice.
Despite defiant lyrics ("now I am invincible / I'm not a scared little girl anymore") it lacks the emotion of earlier Clarkson songs like 2004's "Because of You" and comes across more as a technically fine performance than a memorable expression of feeling.
The closest thing the album has to an anthem similar to 2011's "What Doesn't Kill You (Stronger)" or almost any of the tracks on "All I Ever Wanted" is "Dance With Me," in which Clarkson's voice brings a note of desperation to a fast-paced dance beat.
"Nostalgic" is a callback to the mediocre middle tracks on "All I Ever Wanted," relying on unexpected line breaks ("In my head / I see you laughing / from the words I said / felt like a new beginning") and an underlying dance-hall beat that persists through the entire song.
A duet with John Legend on "Run Run Run" is haunting and melancholy, showcasing both of their voices in a harmonious way.
Influence from other pop icons comes across on some tracks. "I Had a Dream" and "War Paint" both channel Katy Perry, while "Let Your Tears Fall," which drifts into chanting, would make an effective counterpart to Taylor Swift's "Out of the Woods."
The album's one true weak point might just be "Good Goes the Bye," the last track on the standard edition. It's chock-full of cliches from the opening line of "They say Rome wasn't built in a day," and the repetitive chorus left me waiting to hear "boom goes the dynamite" — it wouldn't be too much of a stretch.
The deluxe edition's closing track, "Second Wind," comes across as a natural follow-up to 2011's "You Don't Know A Thing About Me." Both tracks feature Clarkson's powerful command of her voice, which overpowers a relatively simple instrumental backing.
Clarkson promises on the last track that "you can't forget about me." With "Piece by Piece," she proves that forgetting her is nearly impossible.
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