Well, naturally, since this is 2015, Kelly Clarkson’s seventh album, Piece By Piece, opens with, what else, the first single, “Heartbeat Song.” (I realize I’ve just used more commas than any sentence should ever have, but it was fun. You should try it sometime! You might lighten up enough to enjoy this album!) I’m slightly less enthusiastic about the song than I was when I named it a #songoftheday back in January, mostly because it has been over-played ever since and anytime I feel like a song is being shoved down my throat by a major record label I start to feel at least a little uncomfortable with it. It just starts to feel like a song is less of a song and more of an advertising jingle for the corporation. Which, I suppose, you could accuse most major label singles of being, and I’m not holding this against Kelly. It’s only that I was really, really excited about this one upon its release and now I’m not. I still dig it though! It’s fun and catchy (and catchy and fun) and you can hear the happiness in Kelly’s voice as she sings it, and that’s contagious, so it’s nearly impossible to hate. Plus, as a child of the ’80’s, I love the whole synthy, retro vibe it has going on. And things only get more retro with track two, “Invincible,” a Sia co-write, not to be confused with the Pat Benatar song of the same name. It’s not as synthy, but it has all the glam of a Benatar hit, so maybe Sia was inspired by her when she wrote it. “Now I am invincible / What was I running for,” Kelly sings, practically beating her chest, and it makes me think of Katy Perry’s “Roar” every time. Sweet girl power!
But the first truly spell-binding song on the album is track three, a super sad ballad called “Someone.” “So this is my apology / For saying all those shitty things / I wish I didn’t really mean / I’m sorry, I’m not sorry,” she sings. So, it’s less a ballad about missing someone and more of a ballad about not missing someone. Although she is wishing the guy finds “someone,” her way of saying that she hopes he’s happy. But really, actually happy, not in a way that says fuck you. She wants him to find “a reason to breathe.” I wish my ex-girlfriends wished me so well. And you’ll be happy to know that Kelly finds her own reason to breathe on the very next song, “Take You High.” “When you come down / I’ll take you high,” she sings before the music gets all dubsteppy and a little dark in spite of the fact that the lyrics are all positive. Unless you consider getting someone high when they’re coming down to be a bad thing. And I do like thinking that Kelly is talking about drugs, or at least pot, here. Just as I rejoiced when she used the word “shitty” during “Someone.” I’ve always wanted Kelly to cross over to the dark side. But this is about “Take You High” and not Kelly in general, so I digress. The sole remaining thing I need to point out about “Take You High” is its soaring strings, which are enough to sweep you away, though they can be hard to hear behind the dubsteppy parts. Just pay attention so you don’t miss them.
The snappy title track, “Piece By Piece” doesn’t rock like “Since U Been Gone” or “Behind These Hazel Eyes,” which are still my two favorite Kelly Clarkson songs, but it does sound like it could have appeared on the same album, Breakaway. “Back then I didn’t have anything you needed / So I was worthless,” she sings during the song about an absent father, though you could interpret it as being about whomever you choice. Anyone who burnt holes in you that you later had to fill yourself.
Supposedly Kelly and John Legend didn’t realize they were covering a Tokio Hotel song when they recorded “Run Run Run.” The story goes that the song was shopped to them by the songwriters and the songwriters neglected to mention that the song had already been brilliantly done by the Hotel boys. I guess that’s what you do if you’re trying to sell the same song twice, which seems pretty deceitful to me. I also find it disappointing that Kelly and John hadn’t heard the original version of the song. While it wasn’t exactly a Top 10 hit, it was popular enough, certainly not some little indie song by an artist with a fanbase of ten people. I kind of feel like it’s pathetic that today’s artists don’t know what else is out there. You should never strive to copy another artist (though they accidentally did that here), but, for fuck’s sake, know what else is going on in the music world. If your iTunes library only consists of Grammy Nominees, well, that’s just tragic. So, how does Kelly and John’s version compare to Tokio Hotel’s? Well, I do quite like it, but it’s not as good as Tokio Hotel’s version. Kelly and John pour their hearts into it but the magic just isn’t there like it was on Hotel’s version. I should also mention that I was disappointed to learn that Tokio Hotel didn’t write this song. I thought they were a band who wrote all of their own tunes, not one that goes around buying songs from outside writers. Now I see them more like a boy band than a rock band.
One of the catchiest songs on Piece By Piece comes in the form of the exquisitely-produced, perfectly punchy “I Had A Dream, which finds Kelly singing, “I had a dream we were born a generation to be heard.” Nice job dissing your whole generation there, Kelly! Well, OK, the song isn’t exactly a diss track, but it does express disappointment with her generation. The reason why it works, and even feels inspiring, is because the uppity people who listen to Kelly Clarkson are probably disappointed with their generation as well. This is clearly a song for those who want better, who strive to be better versions of themselves. “If you want to be a preacher, be a preacher,” she sings. So empowering!
My favorite song on the album is a ballad called “Tightrope,” which finds Kelly at her most emotive, her voice about as sad as its ever been. She really wears her heart on her sleeve with this one. “Oh, you and I will fall in time eventually / Or maybe we’ll both die trying,” she sings. The final lyric is “I can’t compete.” The song alternates between her feeling confident that she’ll be with the object of her affection eventually and feeling too worthless for him. I love songs that are packed with conflicted emotions like this. That’s how most people tend to feel, so they just seem the most honest to me, better than a totally happy or entirely sad song. But, hey, Piece By Piece has plenty of those, too. Ultimately, it’s an album that’s sure to please you regardless of how you prefer your pop. And if you start off disliking it, keep listening. Many of its best songs come during the second half of the album. Piece by piece, she gets there.