Kelly Clarkson has never achieved the cultural relevance of would-be peers like Beyoncé or Katy Perry, but the 32-year-old American Idol alum was an indisputably dominant force at her mid-2000s commercial peak. With her sixth studio album, Piece by Piece, Clarkson looks to recapture the form that led to four straight top 10 hits (all from 2004 sophomore slam Breakaway) a decade ago — and occasionally exceeds it.
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Clarkson’s discography lacks a real stylistic through line. Instead, it always has been characterized by her vocal strength and versatility — few bells and whistles are needed to convey just how powerful her instrument can be, and her best singles appeal to both pop cognoscenti and more casual, radio-centric listeners. By avoiding gimmickry she has emphasized her musicianship, but also rendered much of her music homogeneous: Most of her LPs (save perhaps 2007’s rebellious, noble failure My December) blend together in one formless zone. Piece by Piece doesn’t disrupt that similitude, but it gleams with the professionalism that has marked the rest of Clarkson’s postpeak phase. Working with songwriting and production A-listers like Greg Kurstin (Sia, Britney Spears), Clarkson doubles down on songs that put her skyscraping voice first. And it sounds better than ever. The exuberance that resulted in oversung performances early in her career is now tamped down in favor of superior control and dynamic range. Single “Invincible,” one of several Sia co-writes, is a good example: Instead of relying on untamed vocal runs, Clarkson stays clear and commanding right up until its high-altitude climax.
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But another change from her past work is less welcome: Clarkson largely has abandoned spiky pop-rock in favor of fluffy midtempo arrangements and swollen ballads, an unsurprising choice for a maturing artist whose last album, 2013’s Wrapped in Red, was a holiday collection. This results in some drab moments, including the EDM-inflected “Take You High” and sleepy “I Had a Dream.” But when Clarkson forges a real emotional connection — like on the raw, personal title track, another standout vocal showcase — the album transcends the hammier, more hackneyed moments in between.
This story will appear in the March 14 issue of Billboard.