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Album Review

With each of her albums, spanning more than a decade now, Kelly Clarkson has inched away from the bubblegum sensibilities that marked her early career. (She was crowned the very first American Idol in 2002.) And her seventh studio effort, Piece by Piece, seems to give a musical finality to that movement. We hear a much more mature rock and pop now, when we hear those styles at all. At times, Clarkson's strong, R&B-like vocals recall Beyoncé. Other songs pair her powerful voice with EDM beats.

Beyond her musicality, Kelly Clarkson's self-confidence-meets-spitfire-spirit remains more than evident here. She recently told a British critic who was asking about her gaining weight, "I've just never cared what people think. It's more if I'm happy and I'm confident and feeling good, that's always been my thing. And more so now, since having a family—I don't seek out any other acceptance." That attitude comes through loud and clear here.

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Kelly's parents divorced when she was 5. And that experience perhaps informs the title track as she takes a deadbeat father to task and contrasts him with the faithful man she's fallen for. Of Dad she sings, "And all I remember is your back/Walking toward the airport, leaving us all in your past." And of her beau she says, "He never walks away/He never asks for money, he takes care of me/He loves me/Piece by piece, he restored my faith/That a man can be kind and a father can stay."

"Invincible" trades the broken hopes of the past ("You know I was broke down, I had hit the ground/ … You know I had lost hope, I was all alone") for fierce determination to stand strong ("Now I am invincible/No, I ain't a scared little girl no more/ … What was I running for?/ … Now I am a warrior, a shooting star"). Clarkson then references a mentor or perhaps even God: "Teacher, I feel the dots connecting."

Though a bit crude, "I Had a Dream" counsels women to find their value and identity in their character rather than their sexuality ("Careful now, girl, with them Jezebel ways/ … It's too bad you can't see what you're worth/Spreading your legs instead of using your words/Character is shown by the things that we do/The one thing you're never gonna hide is the truth"). Elsewhere, this anthem envisions women acting powerfully instead of squandering their influence ("I had a dream that we were more/A generation to behold/Lighting fires with our words/Instead of useless smoke that blurs"). We're counseled, "If you wanna lead, be a leader/If you wanna dream, be a dreamer/Climb to the top of that mountain and scream it."

"Heartbeat Song" finds Kelly gushing about trading numbness for "anticipating what's to come/ … Until tonight, I only dreamed about you/I can't believe I ever breathed without you/Baby, you make me feel alive and brand new." "Take You High" instructs, "Let me open your heart wide/When your angels fall out of the sky/I'll be the wings that make you fly/When you come down I'll take you high." "Let Your Tears Fall" invites a man to freely share his vulnerabilities and insecurities, promising, "I won't push you away/I'll only pull you near."

The breakup song "Run Run Run" tries to strike a brave pose amid heartbreak ("We fall through fate/But we rise and rise again"). "Someone" magnanimously hopes an ex does better in his next romance ("But I hope you will find/Someone to cry for, someone to try for/ … Someone to fight for, someone to die for"). Similarly, "War Paint" asks a man to drop his defensive stance and willingly share himself ("Scar to scar, I want to know every story that you've never told"). Clarkson also seems to recognize the connection between physical closeness and emotional intimacy ("So hold me close and kiss my skin/Don't be afraid, let me in/I'll hold you close and take your hand to my heart/Here I am").

Objectionable Content

That last song doesn't make marriage the context for the physical closeness, sadly. And "Heartbeat Song" heats things up on the dance floor with, "Your hands on my hips/And my kiss on your lips." Likewise, The Pat Benatar-esque "Dance With Me" imagines that "It's 4:00 a.m. and the room won't stop/My heart is pounding, how your body rocks/My lips, they quiver on your skin/ … Feel the music like a lover's kiss/Feel the rhythm like a warm embrace"). "War Paint" couches emotional vulnerability as a suggestive double entendre ("I'll take off yours if you'll take off mine/Reveal the things that we're trying to hide"). "Run Run Run" asks the equally suggestive question, "I wonder how your body tastes/Inside of someone else's place."

"Heartbeat Song" asks that fiery new beau, "Where the h--- did you come from?" "War Paint" repeats the question, "Why in the h--- do we fight on the front line?" The end-of-relationship song "Good Goes the Bye" twice admits, "And I'm missing you like h---." "Someone" uses the s-word twice ("So this is my apology/For saying all those s---ty things").

Among the memories recalled on "Nostalgic" are "drunken tears."

Summary Advisory

Piece by Piece is an upbeat, hopeful and in many ways mature album. Which makes Kelly Clarkson's choice to "spice up" a few songs with profanity and sensuality feel even more off-putting. It's disappointing and unnecessary because there's enough genuine-feeling grit and realism here already. Clearly, Clarkson's been through her share of ups and downs, and there's poignant evidence that what she's experiencing in marriage is healing some deep wounds she's nursed for a long time. Still, she can't quite resist the temptation to be a bit naughty—lyrical pieces that feel out of place when laid side by side with the positive perspectives that pave the rest of this musical path.

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Debuted at No. 1.

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March 3, 2015

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Adam R. Holz

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