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Kelly Clarkson: Piece by Piece
Kelly Clarkson's unambiguous orchestral balladry hasn't been heard in its full glory since 2011's Stronger – save for misguided 2013 Christmas album Wrapped in Red. Four years after her last full studio album, the American Idol star has set the tone for her 2015 with Piece by Piece.
Throughout what has been a whirlwind career and rise to fame, Clarkson's music has primarily revolved around themes of heartbreak, survival, struggle and self-empowerment, all thrown together under the banners of country and pop. Staying true to her origins, Clarkson covers the same lyrical themes on her latest LP, but shows signs of evolution, with Piece by Piece taking strong eighties inspirations as well as sprinkling it all with a hint of electro-pop.
With a catchy bubblegum chorus and a cheery Clarkson crooning about an exhilarating new love, 'Heartbeat Song' opens the album, which, as a whole, shows Clarkson's voice to be much more versatile – something that is perhaps most evident on 'Invincible'. Co-written by Sia Fuhrler, the track is a slow-building power ballad that mixes the worlds of pop and electronic music to chart-friendly effect and feels like a continuation by previous hit single, 'What Doesn't Kill You (Stronger)'.
Covering none-other-than German rock band, Tokio Hotel, Clarkson delivers an r&b-adorned duet of 'Run Run Run' with John Legend; a tune dripping with despair that gives the album more emotional depth – and, of course, the vocals of Mr Legend. But for every emotional exploration, there's an equally hollow song to go with it; tracks like 'Dance with Me' sees Clarkson lean the way of contemporaries such as Katy Perry with a disco-pop number that sees her sing, "And when the music starts and the lights go down we will all be found."
It's this type of modern chart pop that sways the album into mimicry; 'Take you High' draws heavily on the use of electronic vocal tampering, resulting in Clarkson's vocals being void of any of its distinctiveness.
This is the struggle that 'Piece by Piece' embodies; it feels like Clarkson is trying too hard to make a statement – what that statement might be isn't immediately clear, but it's almost certainly motivated by the need to stay relevant. The lyrics go from being emotionally draining and gritty to fun and bubbly, and while it showcases a flexibility and adaptability that we've not seen often, Clarkson shines brightest when she uses her strengths – namely, her voice. While she delivers the more en vogue pop sounds well, she is at her best when her voice leads – something that doesn't always happen on what is a largely digestible album.
Just ask Guns ‘n Roses’ Axl Rose or try and listen to any recent Korn album without cringing. Many bands quit (R.E.M., Sonic Youth), others tone down their sound (Metallica) and some keep regurgitating what they’ve been doing for decades (The Rolling Stones).
Kim Thayil’s guitar traditionally wails around on the dissonant side of the spectrum and singer Chris Cornell still deals out high-pitched screeches like a rock version of Celine Dion – but they have audibly matured. And considering that the grunge kids of two decades ago have aged with them, many will appreciate this more grown-up, adult sound.
After 52 minutes, one question remains: now that Soundgarden seems to have arrived at their definitive sound, will they become one of those established bands that don’t evolve anymore? Like fellow Seattle-ites Pearl Jam, or grandfathers of rock Aerosmith, for example. Or will they continue to develop their sound, like Muse or Radiohead?
Singer-songwriter, Tove Nilsson, first made her way to everyone’s ears with debut single, ‘(Habits) Stay High,’ and now the twenty-seven year-old Swede, who was discovered by the iconic Max Martin, has just released her first studio album.
Sweden has a fine history of producing unique pop; Abba aside, Swedish acts have successfully infiltrated UK and US charts in the past and continue to do so. The Cardigans were all the rage in the 90s and more recent examples include the Knife, the Concretes and Lykke Li who have all had varying success outside their homeland in the last decade.
It’s easy, then, to say that expectations are somewhat high for Ms Lo; but she meets them with aplomb.
Queen of the Clouds is divided into three parts – ‘The Sex’, ‘The Love’ and ‘The Pain’ – with each narrating a different stage of a relationship. The first section carries an edgy theme of carefree love and lust, riddle with risqué lyrics. ‘My Gun’ is unapologetically racy, ‘I Like ‘Em Young’ is as daring as its title implies and ‘Talking Body’ is equally as unrepentant in its approach to sex.
‘Time Bomb’ opens the second chapter of the story and sets a different theme as the relationship teeters between love and incompatibility, with a piano intro leading to a fast-paced chorus. With tracks like ‘Not on Drugs’, the album finds a venn diagram-like space that is best described as Taylor Swift and Katy Perry after they’ve knocked back a dozen cans of Red Bull, with its endearingly basic-pop lyrics yet explosive, disco-inspired beats.
The love affair crashes and burns in the third part of the album as Nilsson croons, “And then there’s no good way to end things/ ‘Cause it’s ending, y’know?” in ‘Thousand Miles’ which features a more laid back, monotonic beat that allows her vocals to take centre stage. The album’s lead single ‘Habits (Stay High)’ features in the last part and, alongside ‘This Time Around’, sees Lo at her angst-ridden best.
For the many that were eager to find what else Tove Lo had in her musical armoury, this will not disappoint; the bustling brunette meets the expectations of the bold, raw take on pop that her early hype promised. Queen of the Clouds mixes fun, dance-friendlybeats, with grand choruses and edgy, soulful lyrics in a neat little, edible package.