Over the last 15 years, Kelly Clarkson has proven herself, again and again, to be a powerhouse vocalist and beloved pop star. And although she’s churned out hit after hit among her first six studio albums – not to mention an acclaimed holiday record – she’s also had to fight for creative freedom every step of the way. Despite her soulful leanings on American Idol at the beginning of the century, her career has been dominated by pop rock anthems. Now that her six-album contract with RCA is finally over, Kelly’s first album with Atlantic Records highlights all of Kelly’s best features in the impressive, soulful Meaning Of Life. It’s Kelly’s personal favorite album to date, and it might just become yours, too.
Meaning Of Life comes closer to representing all sides of Kelly than any album before. And it’s clear in each and every song that she was putting her all into this project. It’s the most cohesive, authentic record she’s released yet, perhaps aside from her underrated gem, My December. Each song sounds like the soulful idols who first inspired Kelly, but updated with a 21st-century twist. Modern urban elements mix well with the classic soul vibe Kelly has mastered.
The songs on Meaning Of Life are more dynamic and interesting than before. Instead of clinging to the standard verse-chorus format, these songs explore new structures and more intricate patterns. Many of the tracks offer up multi-part verses or choruses, pre-choruses, and sophisticated bridges. One of the tracks slowly builds up to a thrilling climax, no verse-chorus blueprint needed. This experimentation makes the whole album more enjoyable to listen to as a whole. It’s not as flat and predictable as previous records.
Although the songs do all fall under the soul pop umbrella, they each delve into different tributaries and elements. The best tracks are the ones that stray the furthest. The most unique and unexpected songs are generally the standouts here. Interesting, different songs are more memorable than the safer, color-inside-the-lines tracks. While some may fall a bit flat in spite of their original direction (see “Whole Lotta Woman”), they’re still an improvement on the too-predictable songs like “Medicine.”
Kelly’s voice is particularly refreshing on Meaning Of Life. With songs like “Since U Been Gone” and “Stronger,” Kelly’s known as the queen of belting. And while there’s still some of that here, we also get to hear another side of her stunning vocal prowess. Kelly showcases her high head voice range, sounding angelic one moment, powerful the next as she switches back to her belted notes. In part because it was so rare on her previous albums, the head voice leaves Kelly sounding younger than she has since her Thankful days. On the other hand, her voice has much more support and depth now, too. Kelly sounds more mature, her voice aging like fine wine.
Kelly shows off her vocal acrobatics a bit more here, too. As she previously promised, this is a record where she doesn’t just sing, she sangs! There’s a reason she won American Idol, and it’s obvious when you listen through Meaning Of Life. It’s her most vocally dynamic record yet.
Overall, Meaning Of Life is an impressive, flawless album. It shows a new side of Kelly, and the maturity, creative dynamism, and fearlessness make it an album that will stand out among her catalog. Kelly has moved into this soulful, “grown-ass woman” territory with grace, and has achieved stellar results. Meaning Of Life is certainly among the best albums of 2017.
Track by Track
“A Minute (Intro)” – The album opens with the sound of clicking heels, a closing door, and the static of a dusty record playing on a turntable. Kelly sings about needing some downtime to unwind after a long day. It’s a short, simple track that perfectly sets the stage for this moment with Kelly. “A Minute” sets the tone while inviting some quality time just absorbing the music for the next 45 minutes.
“Love So Soft” – The first full song was also the album’s lead single. “Love So Soft” offers an old-school groove on verses before switching to a surprisingly modern chorus. Kelly has never sounded so urban as she does here, chanting over a low-tuned beat. She squeaks out some high notes in the chorus before hitting an even higher one at the end of the bridge. “Love So Soft” sums up the album’s two sides in a perfect package.
“Heat” – Meaning Of Life moves right into this fun little song. Kelly sings about the flames of love after the fire has started to fade. She’s rattled by the turn of events, and is pleading to get some of the heat back into the relationship. The chorus is great, led by a “whoa-oa” singalong that invites the listener to join in.
“Meaning Of Life” – The title track was also the song that started this whole album. Kelly has had it since she recorded Piece By Piece a few years ago, and she used it as her guide in making this album. “Meaning Of Life” has a beat that makes you bob you head. Kelly laments her lonely life on the verses, but the chorus is like clouds parting as the rays of newfound love light up her life. The chorus comes in three parts, starting with sliding strings before repeating the melody with a choppy middle section. It ends with those sliding strings as Kelly chants the title over and over. The song fades out, embodying the continuous circle of life. “Meaning Of Life” may not grab you on first listen, but it grows on you fast.
“Move You” – Next up is the first of two ballads. “Move You” came out with “Love So Soft” in September, representing the other extreme on Meaning Of Life. Throwing standard song structure out the window, “Move You” slowly builds up over multiple verses before reaching an incredible climax. Though Kelly sings towards the bottom of her register through most of the song, the belted duet with herself near the end sends chills down your spine. It’s a beautiful ballad made real by its mesmerizing analogies.
“Whole Lotta Woman” – After such a tender tune, the spoken “Whatcha say?” is the only appropriate way to transition to a completely different mood. “Whole Lotta Woman” sounds like Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk” in a lot of ways, from its playful vibe to its call-and-response format. Kelly, who co-wrote the song, throws in references to her southern background throughout the sassy track. It’s a new sound for her, and one that’s pretty fun and charming… if a bit cheesy.
“Medicine” – The same team that wrote “Heat” also wrote “Medicine” for Kelly. Lyrically, it has the same theme as a later song on the album, “I Don’t Think About You,” but with a bit more energy. It’s a pretty standard Kelly Clarkson song – the better-without-you breakup anthem we’ve heard from her for the last 15 years is expected of her, but not remarkable anymore. It’s an all too familiar sound, musically and lyrically. Fans seems to love this one already, but it’s not a standout.
“Cruel” – Sweet piano and strings trick you for just a second before this lovesick song kicks in. Kelly’s vocals are highlighted here, as she glides up the scale on each line of the verse. Though she starts off in an angelic head voice, she quickly proves that she can belt the notes, too. On the chorus, Kelly begs, “don’t be cruel,” stretching the title enough to dip down in the middle. Again, after crooning it low, she bumps it up into a belted plea. “Cruel” is a new sound for Kelly thematically and melodically, and it’s a stunning success.
“Didn’t I” – After that highlight, Kelly offers another standout with “Didn’t I.” The song’s verses are cheeky and caustic, as Kelly is clearly fed up with whoever took her love for granted. She intones lines like, “You called me hysterical,” but turns it around on her lame recipient. Kelly knows she’s a catch and gave her all, and we all know hindsight is 20-20. This ex never deserved her. “Didn’t I” has a classic soulful vibe, complete with horns and sass.
“Would You Call That Love” – Rounding out our 1-2-3 punch is another track Kelly co-wrote. “Would You Call That Love” opens with a harp and ethereal, bubbly music. Its light, breezy tune belies the questions Kelly has about a past love… if you would even use that term. With all these doubts, it’s clear that what they had wasn’t love at all. This may not be as soulful as the other tracks, but it does show growth and diversity within the record. The best song on the album can best be summed up with one word: Lovely.
“I Don’t Think About You” – The second Meaning Of Life ballad wasn’t written by Kelly, but it was written specifically for her. And although it sounds like a breakup song, it’s actually about her split from her record label, RCA. Up until now, all her albums were released on RCA records, and it’s no secret Kelly wasn’t happy with them. She has creative freedom now that she’s with Atlantic (hence, this soulful album), and “I Don’t Think About You” highlights her perspective. Backed by piano and strings, Kelly glides through vocal acrobatics as she lets out 15 years of frustration. Singing some impressively high notes, Kelly sounds young again, the way she did back when she was on American Idol. “I Don’t Think About You” shows Kelly for the true vocalist she is and always has been.
“Slow Dance” – Kelly paints a well-known picture: a tall, dark, handsome man who knows what he wants and has the romancing skills to get it. But she flips the ending upside down as she takes the lead, seeing this womanizer for what he really is: scared and clueless. She’ll be teaching him tonight, not behind closed doors, but on the dance floor. “Slow Dance” is a smooth, sultry song featuring a guitar solo that Kelly herself has called the sexiest part of the album.
“Don’t You Pretend” – Kelly croons over a lilting, rolling beat. The verses are lovely, but the chorus is where it’s really at. Sliding strings like those heard on “Meaning Of Life” glide behind Kelly and her backup singers. It’s the rapidly sung backing vocals that truly make the song, though. Vocal acrobatics are just the icing on top. There’s something magical about “Don’t You Pretend.”
“Go High” – Meaning Of Life ends with one last Kelly-penned song. She wrote “Go High” after hearing Michelle Obama’s inspiring speech last year. The pre-chorus shows off some epic, sustained vocals, while the chorus is super modern, sung quickly and ending with pitched autotune. The most unexpected moment is when all goes silent as Kelly dramatically inhales. After another chorus, the song comes to a sudden halt. It’s the right ending for the song, and the song is a good final track for the album, but the song’s ending feels too abrupt for the album. At this point, it’s time to go right back to “A Minute” and listen again.
Highlights on Meaning Of Life include: “Heat,” “Cruel,” “Didn’t I,” “Would You Call That Love,” and “Don’t You Pretend.”