Nearly four years ago, Kelly Clarkson declared herself "Miss Independent" in a hit from Thankful, the 2003 debut released after she became American Idol's inaugural winner. In that time, it seems as if the singer and budding songwriter has absorbed the defiant sentiment of that song.
After feuding publicly with RCA President Clive Davis, firing her management and canceling a much-publicized summer tour - all within the past month - the native Texan is distancing herself musically from her shiny pop persona. She's moving into harder rock territory with her third album, My December.
Clarkson insisted that the public hear the CD as she intended, never mind a blockbuster hit (thus the feud with Davis). On the album, she is Kelly Clarkson the artiste: moody, inward, slightly gothic. And she's very obvious about it. The CD's cover art practically screams, "I'm so deep this time. Really, I am." There's Clarkson, looking pensive in a billowy, blood-red gown. She sits on carpeted stairs inside a creepy, ornate mansion full of dead leaves and dried, overgrown vines. Though the picture is pretentious, it is still striking.
Too bad the music isn't.
This rawer version of the Grammy-winning pop sensation would have worked had the songs been crafted better and the lyrics written without broken-heart cliches. It also doesn't help that the music is so predictable.
Lyrically, Clarkson was inspired by a breakup: She recently was dumped by her boyfriend. The surging, electric guitar-heavy arrangements echo her bitterness toward the guy who kicked her to the curb.
But Clarkson's charisma and pipes of gold make the album bearable. Her young female fans will probably respond to all the roiling emotion, especially in songs such as "One Minute" and the first single, the kiss-off "Never Again." The album's sole standout, which is to say the only fully realized song, is the last cut, "Irvine." Sparsely arranged with nothing more than acoustic guitars and digitized strings carried by Clarkson's breathy, believable vocals, the ballad is a haunting meditation on loneliness. It is perhaps the CD's only memorable moment.
In a way, Clarkson triumphs here. This is the album she wanted to make, the one she felt she needed to make. And it saw the light of CD shops. Good for her. But no matter how much she runs from it, Clarkson is a pop creation, somebody who is expected to deliver big, inescapable hits. My December doesn't offer any.