[RCA Records] ** 1/2 (2 1/2 STARS)
Take a good look at Kelly Clarkson's expression on the cheap-looking cover of her fourth CD, All I Ever Wanted, in stores today. Noticeably airbrushed against a Crayola-bright backdrop, the pop superstar looks bored and distant. Clarkson's look seems to say, "OK. Here's the big pop record you wanted. Happy now?"
That flippant attitude, unusual for one of the most charming acts of the American Idol machine, permeates the music. Everything about the bombastic, paint-by-number production is so obvious, so lazy, that the CD feels like a rote exercise in pop pandering. Its only saving grace is Clarkson's charisma and platinum pipes, which keep the album from feeling downright condescending.
All of this comes as little surprise given the dismissive handling of her last album, 2007's flawed but brave My December. Clarkson feuded with label head Clive Davis over the CD's moody direction and lack of hits. The album (barely) went platinum despite the controversy. It didn't come close to matching the 11 million worldwide sales of its predecessor, 2004's Breakaway.
After My December, it seems Clarkson was pushed harder by her handlers to produce monster hits. So far, she's done just that: The CD's first single, the annoying "My Life Would Suck Without You," flew to No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100. Last month, the track catapulted from No. 97 to No. 1 in a week, one of the largest leaps in the charts' history. On "My Life," which sounds like a blatant rewrite of Clarkson's smash "Since U Been Gone," the performer is detached from the song. You can just imagine Clarkson rolling her eyes and pursing her lips in the recording booth.
On almost every cut, she pushes her powerhouse vocals over unimaginative arrangements that border on obnoxious. "Already" sounds like a tired, iron-woman kiss-off that Beyonce never got a chance to record. "Whyyawannabringmedown" is catchy but ultimately comes across as a karaoke version of early Pat Benatar. Though "Save You" is overwrought with its busy orchestral touches, Clarkson's performance still emanates some warmth.
All 14 cuts are obviously tailored for radio, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. But the Texan possesses one of the rangiest, most ingratiating voices in modern pop. She certainly doesn't need all the neon layers. Looking at Clarkson's face on the CD cover, you think that she seems to know that, too.