Kelly Clarkson has never been one to stand on ceremony.
Across the seven albums she’s released since first winning “American Idol” 15 years ago, Clarkson has always led with her biggest hits, landing a series of vocal knockouts in quick succession instead of structuring albums that steadily, patiently build up to them, favoring pop payloads over payoffs.
Keeping that in mind makes Clarkson’s decision to open “Meaning of Life” with slow-burning “A Minute (Intro),” the first intro track of her career, all the more notable. “Sometimes, I need a minute that’s my own,” she croons, guitars and violins melding beneath sultry vocals, a vinyl record crackling in the background like a warm fireplace. “I need a minute in my zone/Where I can say just what I want.”
The track flits by, but it’s a cogent declaration of purpose for “Meaning of Life,” Clarkson’s first album since being released from the RCA Records deal she signed after “Idol,” and which she’s described as an “unhappy marriage.” Here, she finally transitions from the anthemically angst-ridden pop-rock that’s thus far defined her sound to the euphorically liberated pop-soul that’s personally shaped her, both as a born-and-raised Texan and a lifelong worshipper at Aretha’s altar.
For Clarkson, who first swept into the mainstream performing soul songs on “Idol,” it’s a near-perfect fit. The singer has perhaps never sounded as confident or comfortable as she does on “Meaning of Life,” filling the record with a surprisingly fluid collection of boot-stomping roof-raisers (sassy, Southern-fried “Whole Lotta Woman,” bouncy lead single “Love So Soft”) and stripped-down, midtempo ballads (sweetly intimate “Move You,” scorchingly sexy standout “Slow Dance”). Consistent throughout is a focus on the power of Clarkson’s raw pipes, a welcome departure from 2015’s “Piece By Piece,” where her soprano was polished to a high gloss and too often submerged in gluttonous EDM production.
By contrast, there’s scarcely a song on the new record where Clarkson isn’t going for broke, whether she’s nailing vocal runs intimidating enough to make Mariah blush on “Medicine” or evoking Adele on the bluesy, effervescent “Would You Call That Love.” And as a result, “Meaning of Life” has few weak links, unfolding instead as an album-long emancipation for one of our best female vocalists, released from pesky contractual obligations and channeling her delight at that newfound freedom into songs that, while signaling a new stage in her career, appear to flow directly from both heart and soul.Isaac Feldberg can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.