Welcome to Junk Mail, where a few Music Times staffers email back-and-forth about each week's biggest release throughout the work day. This week, Carolyn Menyes, Kyle Dowling and Caitlin Carter chat about Kelly Clarkson's new album Piece By Piece. Feel free to join the conversation in the comments section, and check back next week for more.
Carolyn Menyes: I've always had a soft spot for Kelly Clarkson. I love her bubbly personality, and obviously I was a huge fan of hers when she was on American Idol all those moons ago. After a massive break between studio albums, now the O.G. Idol is back with her new album Piece By Piece.
It's interesting to compare this album to her last studio effort, 2011's Stronger. First, Clarkson is in a VERY different place in her personal life; she's a married lady and gave birth to the most adorable chunky baby, River Rose Blackstock. Her new life as a mother and daughter clearly influenced her work here, and I think those personal lyrics are the most insightful and interesting parts of this album, even if the music can be a little similar.
What are your initial thoughts?
Caitlin Carter: I definitely have a soft spot for Clarkson as well - not that I've really listened to all of her songs, but as a person she seems to have an authenticity and down-to-earthness that is missing from pop. I think that Piece By Piece is pretty solid songwise, although in the context of an album, it's a bit much. She goes over the top on the majority of the songs, which works as long as you're listening to it here and there on the radio and not song after song on an album. So as a cohesive project, I think it was a bit daunting.
She seems to be going down the Taylor Swift 1989 path of having an eclectic offering of style and genre with country, electronic, R&B often blending on a single track.
The music seems to have more of a purpose to it, which might be due to her new motherhood. But that is also probably to blame for why it seems over the top. I think motherhood intensified her music in a way, but it also gave her new ideas to explore.
Kyle Dowling: I think there's no doubt that Kelly Clarkson is one of the most, if not the most, talented singers to come out of American Idol. And this album shows you why. In short: It's. A. Really. Good. Album. I think what we see here is a singer who has been through a couple of things and pushed onward. For me, the very first second had me.
Having said that, there were - like with most albums - a couple of tracks I didn't particularly care for, but all in all, Piece By Piece is a very solid record.
CM: I agree with you, Caitlin, Clarkson really goes for it on every single song. And hey, ya gotta give it to her, she has some insane chops. But it does make the album feel very weighty. Each track is purposeful, with a very solid and positive message, but she blasts off over and over again. Despite changes in tempo, everything is just really intensive.
I think that blend you're talking about is really just the modern state of pop. Clarkson definitely skews toward more of an AC format and an older audience than Taylor Swift. Despite blending this all, we have to admit that Piece By Piece doesn't offer anything we haven't heard before. It's musically solid but it's safe. I feel torn about this because individually I can take all of these songs and I like them, but thrown together, it can feel a little redundant and definitely seems a little generic. But, that is the sort of standard for the adult contemporary genre, which is the most boring radio format out there.
CC: Exactly. Almost every song is solid, but lumped together, they lose their power. As I've said on many a Junk Mail, I just wish artists would put out albums that are cohesive and concise as their own entity and drop a ton of one-off singles. That way the music still gets out, but the album says more with less.
What were some of your favorite tracks?
KD: Off the bat, I really enjoyed "Heartbeat Song." Like I said earlier, from the album's very beginning I was excited to be giving it a listen... and the main reason is this song. There's something to it, specifically the chorus. It could very well just be the rhythm and beat, but I loved it. "Someone" had great lyrics, a lot of heart and told a very interesting story. "Run Run Run" - It's hard for me not to like many things with John Legend.
What were some of your favorites?
CM: I also liked "Heartbeat Song." It's very classic Kelly Clarkson, so it was a great choice for a lead single. I love how driving it is and, of course, I'm a sucker for lyrics and the connection between this song, Clarkson's last heartbreak and her new marriage made me feel some type of way. PLUS: FUN FACT, the beat from this song incorporates sonogram sounds of her daughter's heartbeat. I'll give you all a few seconds to cry for how sweet that is.
NOW THAT WE'RE DONE SOBBING WITH LOVE, as I mentioned earlier, I'm a sap and love honest lyricism. So, "Piece By Piece" stands out for me. Musically, it's fine. But, I think the lyrical content about her father, her husband and her daughter is just so raw. "I traveled 1500 miles to see you / Begged you to want me but you didn't want to..." she sings before detailing how her husband treats her like a real man/father should. This song also made me cry when I first heard it, despite having no qualms with my dad.
I thought a lot of the music on this album could feel a little generic, as I said, but I think "Into the Blue" has some really interesting production going on. It's really floaty, and hearing Clarkson whisper in the chorus instead of turning it up to 11 was really a different dynamic.
CC: Definitely with you, Kyle, on "Run Run Run." I though that "Heartbeat Song" was cute, but it's a little generic/standard for me. Carolyn, I'm totally with you on "Piece By Piece" as well.
Personally, I was also a fan of "Take You High" because it was unexpected really worked with her voice. "Nostalgic" had that nice '80s influence while feeling very modern. I also always on board with almost anything penned by Sia, so "Invincible" was a strong track for me as well. "Bad Reputation" was cool, and had a nice 90s R&B twist.
I think there was a song for pretty much every taste on this record.
KD: I would agree that there's something for everyone here. Whether or not that was done on purpose is beyond me but I think Piece By Piece was very well executed.
It wasn't one of my favorite songs on the album, but the lyrics on "I Had A Dream" are pretty interesting on the first verse--the dark side of the spotlight and what can come from achieving a dream. Noting that sometimes it isn't exactly what you were hoping.
CM: I didn't love Clarkson's execution on the '80s thing, I think some other pop stars are doing that a lot better these days (See: Taylor Swift, Carly Rae Jepsen). So "Nostalgic" fell through for me. I also agree that the lyrics to "I Had a Dream" are interesting, but once again, the actual music/melody is a little blah.
I guess I like pop music that takes risks, so I think "I Take You High" is a really interesting choice for Clarkson, and I dig it. This is a song that I would have never seen coming from this particular pop star, so I kind of love that. The chorus is weird and electronic and that's so interesting to listen to.
I feel like I'm dogging on this album a little too much. I love Clarkson's powerhouse voice, but so much of this is just expected. I like "Heartbeat Song" because it was the first pop track we'd heard from Clarkson in a while. But, do we need 12 of those? EH. It's why I like "Into the Blue" and "I Take You High." Those songs are a little more odd, and they give something new to Clarkson's discography, which has always been a little safe. Do ya feel me?
CC: I think "Nostalgic" within the context of the album works well. I don't think it was going to hard on the '80s thing, but I'd agree that her peers who do go all the way on that style probably do it better.
I think, overall, the best songs on the album were the one's I didn't expect from Clarkson -- as you mentioned Carolyn. Throw out all the generic filler, and Piece by Piece is an interesting album.
Stay weird, Kelly!
KD: I must say, I'm not a "Nostalgic" hater. I'd agree with Caitlin. I think it works well. Maybe her peers do it a bit better but I think she still did it well. "Haters gonna hate." Oh wait ... that's the wrong person. Anyway, I will certainly agree that the musical part of "I Had A Dream" is very blah. I mainly like the lyrics. Other than the, eh, not my thang.
In the end, I'd say it's a solid listen. Kelly Clarkson has always been one of those artists who I feel managed to constantly maintain respect in the industry. And I'd say this album keeps up with it.
CC: I think Piece By Piece was packed with good material. However, the intensity and over-the-top feel wore me down a bit. I think she could've thinned the effort out by cutting the generic and highlighting the unexpected. Overall, Clarkson remains in top form and motherhood/marriage has definitely given a sense of weight to the material. Happy to see she's still a vocal powerhouse.
CM: Piece By Piece is solid, there's no doubting that, but there's no real risk here from Kelly Clarkson, and thus, it's hard to give her any real reward. While she shines in what she knows ("Heartbeat Song"), there's too much of that and too little of interesting pop music that's new here, though the tracks that do reflect that are major stars.
KD: Piece By Piece is a great listen. I think Clarkson put together a collection of music that will satisfy anyone at some level. Whether or not she took any risks or did anything out of the norm, it doesn't take away from the fact that she's an incredible singer. Her end result was something I enjoyed.