It’s been nine years since Kelly Clarkson was crowned as the inaugural American Idol, and in that time she’s remained the show’s ideal; she’s a technically gifted singer with charm to spare, an inviting smile, and a knack for inhabiting hooks like they’re barnhouse lofts squirreled away on Texas farm. Even the most Idol-allergic music consumers have embraced the combination of melody, perfectly calibrated guitar grit, and wailing that made up her 2004 hit “Since U Been Gone”; other songs in her catalog, like the sassy “Walk Away” and the girl-group throwback “I Want You,” are similarly indelible.
In keeping with Clarkson’s career — and the ethos of Idol — her fifth album takes its inspirations from all over the pop map. While Dr. Luke and Max Martin, who shepherded “Gone” and the lead single from Clarkson’s previous album All I Ever Wanted, aren’t present, the producers in the mix give Stronger a texture that shows how the genre of “pop” can be a jumping-off point, and not an endgame. “You Love Me” is muscular guitar-pop with gorgeous new-wave flourishes blossoming on its pre-chorus; “Dark Side” has a delicate lullaby threaded throughout; “Honestly” opens with a floating haze of guitar distortion that could be mistaken for a chillwave track. The through line between all these stylistic leaps is Clarkson’s voice, a formidable instrument that knows when to get vulnerable and when to absolutely blow. (Chillwavers could probably stand to learn a lesson or two from her.)
What gives Stronger its extra oomph is the confidence exhibited by Clarkson as she sings lyrics about self-acceptance being a key to love (“Dark Side”) and rumor mills that she wishes would stop churning (“You Can’t Win”). Escaping the Idol machine has been a great thing for Clarkson, who sometimes takes on the role of the pop world’s ombudsman when she’s defending her former show against the “authenticity” police or rolling her eyes at former Idol meanie Simon Cowell’s declarations that she’s not interested in being a pop star. That Stronger allows her to drop the façade that other pop stars might depend on for dear life, and address both the characters in her songs and her audience directly, speaks both to Clarkson’s charm and to her growing maturity as an artist.