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Review: Kelly Clarkson’s Meaning of Life Is a Puzzling Return to the Start of Her Career

Few successes in pop music have been as hard-earned as Kelly Clarkson’s; the story of her career is as much about fighting industry crud at every turn as it is about stardom. Her American Idol win, the show’s inaugural and arguably most fruitful result, came after a lot of failed and stalled starts at record deals. “Since U Been Gone,” the single that launched her career as a standalone artist, also launched the career of disgraced producer Dr. Luke, whom Clarkson refused to work with as early as 2009. Executive Clive Davis notoriously tried to block her follow-up album My December—Clarkson’s only album to date where she co-wrote everything—before gaslighting her over the album’s quality, then dredged the feud back up for his 2013 memoir.

It’s why most of Clarkson’s singles, from “Breakaway” to “Stronger,” track closely radio’s “victim-to-victory” formula yet still feel earned—beneath the songwriting surface runs palpable blood. But it’s also why Clarkson’s albums are so stylistically different, as it’s hard to settle on a consistent sound when you’re shuttled between producers and labels, especially when your benefactor TV show is great at finding big voices and terrible at finding them a repertoire. Idol began as a search for divas of the old-fashioned Whitney Houston/Mariah Carey sort, just as those divas disappeared from R&B and pop radio. The pop-rock of the Breakaway era has virtually disappeared, and the soft-rock Clarkson and others made with Greg Kurstin is disappearing from adult contemporary, a chart currently dominated by Ed Sheeran and people who sound like Ed Sheeran (plus Adele, the exception to every industry rule). From time to time Clarkson’s flirted with making a country record, but that format is suspicious of pop outsiders and, notoriously, of women.

Meaning of Life is Clarkson’s first album post-Idol contract, which would have presumably left her free to release the album she truly wanted to make. It’s a little hard to believe that, though. The guiding principle, as told to the New York Times, was “What if Aretha was born now and made a record today?” Leaving aside the fact that the answer to that question is “singing ‘Rolling in the Deep’ with autotune,” Clarkson and executive producer Craig Kallman (Atlantic’s CEO) deliver just that. Meaning of Life is very much the pop-soul album Clarkson had tried to execute before American Idol, and—15 years later— is curiously the exact kind of album you would expect from an Idol winner. Clarkson’s vocals are full-throated and unsurprisingly great, and the repertoire—rangy ballads, brassy uptempo cuts—is chosen to showcase it. The guest artists are storied veterans, the kind Idol might have on for a guest week—notably, bassist Verdine White of Earth Wind & Fire, who here continues a decade of session spots (high: Solange’s True; low, Flo Rida and Robin Thicke). There are light nods to the times—single “Love So Soft” lightly updates Thankful’s Christina Aguilera-penned “Miss Independent” and Breakaway’s “Walk Away” with a half-time chorus, and tracks like “Didn’t I” and “Heat” recalls Adele’s collaborations with Max Martin. But the rest is stubbornly old-fashioned: sloughing off the flakiness of the millennial male while extolling the virtues of taking it slow and pushing for commitment.

Occasionally the album becomes samey. “Medicine” hinges on the Carey-esque “I ain’t even thinking about you,” as does the track named for it. Occasionally it becomes glurge, as on “Move You”—like “Wonderful World” as reimagined by Hallmark images of sunsets and montages and “a soldier who is falling as he holds his country’s flag”—plus lines like “when a lyric really gets you and it breaks you down inside,” in case you weren’t sure how the song was to be used. And occasionally it becomes forced—as on “Whole Lotta Woman,” where soul becomes vaguely appropriative, sub-Austin Powers caricature.

Unavoidably, the Texas pride there brings to mind Beyonce and Lemonade, as do the more deliberate “Formation” nods in the “Love So Soft” video. But those albums were anything but musically conservative; much of Meaning of Life feels dated, studiously attempting to recreate an era Clarkson’s long since transcended. (Sometimes it’s dated in a more literal sense—2016 went a little too wrong, too horrifyingly, to be able to get away with tearing Michelle Obama’s “when they go low, we go high” out of an anti-Trump speech and turning it into a rousing pop song. Especially one that sounds like Nick Jonas, and might otherwise be Clarkson’s best shot at airplay.) Next year Clarkson’s career will come full circle as she returns to The Voice as a judge. Her musical career, it seems, is doing the same—it’s odd, almost 15 years after Idol, to hear an album that sounds so much like contractual winner’s filler.