America’s enduring idol Kelly Clarkson is reborn over soulful riffs on her eighth studio album, Meaning Of Life. After winning over the country with her sweet personality and evocative pipes, the “Since U Been Gone” singer developed a reputation as one of the industry’s strongest pop-rockers.
She is renowned for churning out impassioned bops. However, for as many pop anthems as she has propelled to the upper reaches of the Billboard Hot 100, her roots remain in an bold brand of soul. Her latest project offers an opportunity to return to the style with a modern twist, and she has never sounded better.
Following a foray into straightforward pop confections on 2015’s Piece by Piece, Kelly resets the mood on “A Minute (Intro).” Things get a little vibey as she gets in the right frame of mind to create. “Sometimes I need a minute just for me. I need a minute just to be,” she croons over sexy stings. Brief but telling, the intro confirms that she is taking some time to do her own thing as she hops on the soul train.
If there were any doubts about her intentions, the project’s lead single, “Love So Soft,” is sure to dash them. Effortlessly blending old and new, the supersized production launches Kelly’s voice into the stratosphere as she sings about the tender passion she shares with a lover. Although their love may be gentle, there is nothing timid about her vocals on the track.
“Hey, every kiss is a door. Can I knock on yours,” she belts on the opening lines. Her punchy delivery vibrates with life and warmth and makes for one of the most exciting releases of the year. Despite getting off to a slow start on the Billboard Hot 100, the track is on an upward trajectory and could prove to be a grower as the season progresses.
The hits keep coming as she makes a plea for passion in a relationship on “Heat.” Produced by The Monarch and Mick Schultz, Kelly’s voice keeps pace with a frenetic beat that is clearly designed to generate as much feeling as possible. If her man isn’t able to meet her needs, at least she will have the energized production to keep her warm.
The LP’s title track was left on the cutting room floor in 2015. Featuring production from Jesse Shatkin and a writing credit from James Morrison, Kelly feared it would get lost on her last album. Instead, she built her latest project around the enamored cut, on which she sings about a partner who brought meaning to her life.
“When you hold me, I finally see. When you say love, I know what it means,” she proclaims. Considering the string of bitter breakups that inspired her earliest hits like “Behind These Hazel Eyes,” it is refreshing to see the hitmaker finding a happy ending.
Possessing one of the most versatile voices in the industry, there is nothing that Kelly is incapable of. But one area where she always excels is balladry. Buzz track “Move You” is a sweeping power ballad that is universally appealing. On it she expresses a fervent desire to create something that will move listeners. “Like an echo in a canyon. Like tears, but you’re not sad. Like a sunrise on a mountain; I wanna move you like that,” she earnestly sings over an ethereal production. It is safe to say that she has accomplished her goal with the chill-inducing offering.
Things get decidedly sassier on “Whole Lotta Woman.” Taking a note out of Kesha’s book, the track is a rollicking female-empowerment anthem. Opening with a cheeky monologue, the track brims over with attitude as Kelly counts down her many positive attributes. It’s big, brassy and brazen with a call-and-response chorus that is as undeniable as a warm biscuit on a Sunday morning. There is something massively appealing about hearing Kelly declare herself “a strong badass chick with classic confidence,” and her giddy outro is adorable.
With a doo-wop inspiration, “Cruel” is another sublime effort. Here she delivers a divine vocal track while commanding more respect from a partner. “Am I supposed to close my eyes and fall asleep when you’re not home? ‘Cause I wanna believe you, but I wonder if you’re all alone,” she bemoans before demanding he stop playing games. It isn’t quite the sparse but meteoric crossover Rihanna had with “Love on the Brain,” but Kelly’s would be at home on any soundtrack.
No Kelly Clarkson release is complete without an era-defining kiss-off anthem, and Meaning Of Life provides several potential options. The first is “Medicine,” an ’80s-influenced bop on which she purges a lover from her system. Featuring the most blazingly pop production the track feels a little out of place on the album, and the dated bridge makes it a bit of a miss. It may be a guilty pleasure, but it isn’t of the caliber as the rest of the album.
“Didn’t I” and “Would You Call That Love” are more likely to be in the running. The first builds up nicely to a powerhouse chorus that packs a punch. “Didn’t I give you everything,” she bellows at a man who left her high and dry. The latter puts an interesting spin on her brand of breakup songs. Instead of ruminating on the bitter end of her relationship she sends her lover well wishes.
The trend continues on “I Don’t Think About You.” “I love that woman that I became,” she sings on the evocative ballad. Her voice soars through some intricate gymnastics on what could be one of her most challenging arrangements. Unsurprisingly, she misses no steps and delivers something truly commendable for both the vocal excellence and personal growth she displays.
Coming toward the back end of the project, the atmospheric “Slow Dance” is a gorgeous highlight on Meaning of Life. The sultry slow burner puts a riff on a classic torch song as Kelly woos a potential lover whom she fears is a bit of a ladies’ man. Instead of falling victim to his sexy advances she demands they take things slow. “I’m not going home with you tonight, but you can hold my hand,” she declares before offering to teach him how to dance.
Romantic and ethereal, it is the perfect production for the 35-year-old hitmaker. Followup track “Don’t You Pretend” serves as a fitting sequel. Opening as a ballad, the track morphs into a striding midtempo as Kelly demands a man be honest about his feelings. “Baby, I want to love you, but I can’t take the suspense,” she implores as the production builds to a crescendo alongside a choir.
The album’s closer, “Go High,” interpolates Michelle Obama’s classic “When they go low, we go high” to end on an optimistic note. The frothy track resonates with a timely message that both makes sense in the current political landscape and rings true to Kelly’s own brand. For an artist who proclaimed that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” six years later she still cannot be knocked down.
A little sassy but entirely classy, Meaning Of Life is Kelly’s strongest project in years. The LP abounds with potential singles, and her voice is stronger than ever before. Returning to her roots had truly opened a wealth of opportunities for the superstar.
On the album, Kelly has clearly discovered the meaning of her life. It is not defined by any man who holds her and brings her purpose. Instead, she found it in vibrant rhythms, bold productions and thrilling runs. She found it in the relationships she fostered and the experiences she has had. She created something that will move a collective audience, and it is easily one of the brightest moments in 2017.