Pink has always seemed so restless, wanting to fit in just enough but still stand out.
Her musical personality has shifted drastically with each album. On her 2000 debut, the contrived Can't Take Me Home, she was the dance-pop teen queen with a faux 'round-the-way R&B; edge. More forthright than her contemporaries Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, Pink scored platinum right out of the box with indistinctive radio hits ("There U Go," "You Make Me Sick" and "Most Girls") that were barely saved by her sassy persona.
Then like Madonna in her '80s prime, the Doylestown, Pa., native completely flipped her sound and look the next year with 2001's M!ssunderstood. An artistic and commercial breakthrough with more than 5 million copies sold, the CD showcased more of the punk-pop rebel. Cuts like "Get the Party Started" and "Don't Let Me Get Me" were big, infectious pieces of pop-radio candy. Yet Pink's in-control attitude and the pronounced soulful snarl in her delivery distanced her even more from Aguilera's overcooked, diva-like histrionics and Spears' nonexistent vocal prowess.
Pink, 26, lost momentum with the dark, hard-rock approach on 2003's Try This, which only sold a few more than 700,000 copies and produced no substantial hits. Now, after about three years away, the recently married pop star, born Alecia Moore, returns with I'm Not Dead, an uneven record brimming with big choruses and emblazoned with forget-you sentiments. On it, she couches her rebellious lyrics in mostly zealous, pop-friendly tracks that fold in elements of punk-rock, folk-rock and reggae. But the CD as a whole feels uneven, a little schizophrenic.
The productions, courtesy of Billy Mann, Max Martin, Butch Walker and others, never overpower Pink. She's given plenty of room to strut, run or caress a melody. It's just that this time, she's trying to do too much with very little subtlety or nuance. She's either one thing or another: confident or insecure, bold or fragile, a tough punk girl or a sensitive folksy crooner.
On "Stupid Girls," the album's first single, she dismisses vain women whose sole ambition in life is to be "fabulous." In the hilarious video for the single, she does Saturday Night Live-like parodies of Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton and others. Yet on " 'Cuz I Can," Pink brags about her own bling and all-around fabulousness:
You talk real loud
But you ain't sayin' nothing cool
I can fit your whole house in my swimming pool
My life's a fantasy
That you're not smart enough to even dream
My ice is making me freeze
Though usually acidic and refreshingly straightforward, Pink can get mushily melodramatic at times. "Dear Mr. President" is a swipe at President Bush wrapped in musical clover -- nimble acoustic guitars and honeyed harmonies by the Indigo Girls:
Dear Mr. President, come take a walk with me
Let's pretend we're just two people and you're not better than me.
It's a weepy tune that borders on folk parody, but Pink seems serious here.
The band returns and plugs in the guitars on the next cut, the title tune. It's one of those loud-then-quiet-then-loud-again power ballads that made Kelly Clarkson such a huge star. It's not a bad song necessarily, and Pink sings it professionally. It's just one of the most predictable tracks on the 13-cut album.
Sounding like a young, gutsy Bonnie Raitt, the singer-songwriter reveals an attractive bluesy side on "The One That Got Away," a sparsely arranged highlight and the only nuanced song on the album. On it, Pink sounds defiant, sexy and emotionally invested. But the momentum dips on "I Got Money Now," where she sounds bored and ready to leave the studio. The album ends on a mushy note with the wordy, sappy "Conversations With My 13 Year Old Self."
Pink has always been complex, and that's fine. As she evolves, maybe she'll find a better way to package all of those complexities and contradictions. A little mystery wouldn't hurt.