Who wouldn’t cotton to the idea of Kelly Clarkson unleashed? She remains not just the very first singer to have emerged from America’s preoccupation with televised singing playoffs but still far and away the worthiest. Finding a style worthy of her has been spotty, though. Hitting her 30s, Clarkson seemed to find her pop stride, but she followed her best album, “Stronger,” with her most meh, “Piece by Piece.” It didn’t feel like she necessarily spent all that time chafing under the constraints of the label execs and producers she’s sometimes taken public issue with, but if Clarkson tells us it took until “Meaning of Life” to realize her true self on record, we’ll take her word for it.
That true self, as you may have heard, is as a soul woman. Feeling her pure pop side was played out, she’s now aiming to reincarnate as the Dalai Aretha — that is, an R&B-based belter who could’ve been on the Atlantic Records roster Back In The Day. It’s hard to take major issue with the move. Her voice for this type of material is too big to fail, and her heart could hardly be more in the right place. Compared to “Piece by Piece,” “Meaning of Life” sounds like Ruth Brown, Ben E. King, and Wilson Pickett put together.
So is it churlish to complain that she didn’t quite take things far enough? As enjoyable as the new album is, there’s a sense of some bets being hedged when it comes to the producers, few of whom have helmed a truly old-school R&B record before, and nearly all of whom seem inclined to add 21st-century percussion effects and undercut the vintage-sounding compositions with the thick, compressed sound modern radio expects. One reason those old records Clarkson reveres sounded so great is because you could hear the players play as well as the singers sing. You get plenty of Clarkson singing, masterfully, on “Meaning of Life,” but the frantically busy music beneath her hardly ever gets a chance to breathe.
Still, there’s only one really regrettable choice here: the almost self-parodically sassy “Whole Lotta Woman,” which, even if it didn’t suffer from a particularly strenuous effort on Clarkson’s part to approximate the patois of Southern blackness, has her yelping out feisty declarations like “I’m a strong badass chick with classic confidence!” (The old writing workshop maxim still applies: Show, don’t tell!)
The album is at its best when it’s less about making the attitude as huge as the voice and more about finding the sly side of soul singing. “Cruel” is a solid mid-tempo ballad that exists somewhere between Carla Thomas and En Vogue, even with that 2017 drumbeat, and allows Clarkson plenty of room to find different twists and turns in the melody. “Love So Soft” has a hip-hop style interlude that sounds like it was conceived for a Nicki, not a Kelly, but when the track is this much fun, you welcome the stylistic anachronisms more than you resist them.
But one track in particular serves as an example of letting this style of music stand on its own without the contemporary concessions. Producer Nick Ruth finds just the right sweet spot on “Slow Dance,” where you can actually sense there’s a real band playing. Clarkson has said she wanted to make the kind of record a young Aretha might have made if she were starting out in 2017, but imagine the results if she’d gone for Aretha ’67?
Producers: The Monarch, Jesse Shatkin, Mick Schultz, Nick Ruth, Jussifer, NOVA Wav, Fade Majah, Jason Halbert, Greg Kurstin
Executive producers: Craig Kallman, Clarkson