It seems like every album since My December has been a comeback for Kelly Clarkson. All I Ever Wanted was a return to traditional pop, Stronger rose up in the face of leaks, and Piece by Piece was her first all-new album in four years (she’d released a greatest hits album and a Christmas album during the interim). Unfortunately, Piece by Piece wasn’t the strongest comeback album, and many lost faith in Kelly’s music. It seemed like a rehash of Stronger, but not as good. That’s not to say there weren’t good songs on the album, just that it was her weakest to date. And so, Kelly took a break to have her second child and finally got back in the studio for her fourth consecutive comeback. And this one did not disappoint. A ‘90s R&B pop extravaganza, this is the first Kelly Clarkson album on which I’ve liked every song on first listen. It’s everything Kelly’s first album, Thankful, wanted to be. Vocally, this is Kelly’s peak performance. Lyrically, she deals with themes of growth, love, and leaving toxic people behind. It’s only a week old, and yet I’m already certain this is her best album to date.
As with my review of Demi Lovato’s Tell Me You Love Me, I feel it would be too redundant to denote which songs are my favorites on this album because I love them all. I will say, however, that my least favorites are “A Minute (Intro)” and “Don’t You Pretend.” They’re still good, but not as good as the rest. And now, here is my track-by-track review of Kelly Clarkson’s latest effort Meaning of Life:
- A Minute (Intro): True to its name, this song is only a minute long. It’s got an almost ‘50s vibe, as Kelly croons through a voice distorter about how sometimes she just needs a minute to herself. She sounds great and it’s a relatable idea, but it is very much an interlude as opposed to a song.
- Love So Soft: The first single off the album, this upbeat jam is both a promise and a warning to Kelly’s husband. Kelly’s love is gentle, but if you hurt her she won’t go easy on you. Her voice cracks with vulnerability, proof of what she’s saying. The song opens almost as if the heavens are opening, an experience one gets listening to Kelly’s angelic voice. While I don’t love it as the first single, it’s still a great track.
- Heat: This sexy track finds Kelly upset that her partner has gone cold on her. He’s no longer trying, leaving Kelly the only one making an effort in the relationship. The swinging pendulum of low notes are what really sell this song, as does the way Kelly says “heat.” There’s just something about it that I love. Honestly, this track deserves to be a single.
- Meaning of Life: Backed by acoustic guitar and R&B swagger, Kelly recounts how finding love with her husband has helped her define the meaning of life. While such a notion can come off melodramatic, Kelly plays it earnestly. Kelly takes us to church on the bridge, a veritable hymn in its own right. It’s another track I could see doing well as a single.
- Move You: This track, a drum-string ballad, is literally just one big list. And it sounds amazing. Kelly names all the things that move her (hearing her favorite singer live, her childhood home, sunrises over mountaintops, etc.) and declares she wants to move her husband in that way. He’s been so good to her and she loves him so much, she wants to make him feel what she feels. The song is very Adele-esque at times in the way Kelly hits some of the notes. It’s so earnest and sweet, you can’t help but feel moved yourself.
- Whole Lotta Woman: This funky song is easily Kelly’s sassiest to date. Kelly celebrates her confidence and her body on this empowering track. She also celebrates her Texas roots. Kelly (and her backup singers) definitely seem like women you don’t want to mess with, especially when they declare things like, “I ain’t no girl./ I’m a boss with orders.” Even if you can’t relate to Southern culture, you still feel pretty badass listening to this song.
- Medicine: This funky track is quintessential ‘90s pop R&B. It’s a sassy call-out to someone who wronged Kelly in the past, someone she left and is now better without. Knowing her turbulent history with her former record label (RCA), one wonders if this song is really about them. Either way, it’s really fun to sing along to and has a really cool post-chorus refrain. This song is easily my favorite on the album.
- Cruel: This song, a power ballad, finds Kelly on the other side of the same coin from “Heat.” This time, however, she’s angry. She calls her man out on leaving her behind and paying her no mind, asserting that he’d hate if she did the same to him. Again, she reflects on how much she’s putting into this relationship, but now she’s running out of chances to give. The anger she feels, however, is less bitter and more tired. In a way, this speaks to her maturity. No longer is she the girl from My December’s “Never Again.” She retains the same frank honesty, but this time doesn’t wait until the relationship is over to let him know how she feels. It’s a very clear step forward for her and I love it.
- Didn’t I: Deftly mixing big band with ‘90s R&B pop, this song is Kelly’s homage to En Vogue. It retains the same amount of sass those ladies infused their songs with and is musically similar. This song follows similar themes to “Medicine,” except Kelly is now calling out the two-faced hypocrisy of her former record label as well as reminding them she gave everything to be what they wanted. Kelly has no pity for them now that she’s left them behind. And, given how good this album is, it’s good riddance.
- Would You Call That Love: This track is the most pop on the album. It finds Kelly catching up with an old flame, one who left her to chase “bigger and better things.” Rather than being bitter, however, Kelly is just asking if they’re happy and remember their relationship fondly. Given her history with her father, one wonders if it’s actually a message to him. Either way, it’s a very mature outlook I find reminiscent of Stronger’s “I Forgive You.” It makes you reflect on yourself, but in the best of ways.
- I Don’t Think About You: This piano ballad is the heart-wrenching version of “Medicine.” It’s an emotional recounting of her journey in the music industry and the place where she is now. She hits some great notes in this song as well. Even though she’s glad to have left RCA behind, she’s still grateful for the strength she gained through her career with them. If she’s going to pick a ballad to be a single, it needs to be this one.
- Slow Dance: This track, while not quite a ballad, is a slow, sexy, jazzy number. Kelly’s voice and the guitars are sultry and seductive, despite the lyrics saying she wants to take things slow. She’s got his number and she’s ready to help him find love. It’s strangely sweet for such a sexy song. And that guitar solo is excellent. Definitely a deep cut worth giving a listen.
- Don’t You Pretend: This song calls back to greats such as Aretha Franklin. It’s an almost bluesy R&B, Kelly crooning about a man who’s afraid to show her how he really feels. Kelly doesn’t have the time or patience for such an act, wanting to know exactly who she’s in a relationship with. The chorus utilizes an interesting tempo contrast, the lines alternating between slow and fast. Despite not being a favorite, I have a sneaking suspicion this song will grow on me.
- Go High: Inspired by Michelle Obama’s mantra, “When they go low, you go high,” this song is about just that. She acknowledges that it can be hard being the bigger person, but she knows it’s ultimately the best thing. There’s even a neat effect on the “go high”’s that makes Kelly’s voice go even higher than usual. It really helps add to the light feeling of doing the right thing and not stooping to the level of others. This song is a really great way to close out the album.
I have been a huge fan of Kelly’s since I was twelve and I can honestly say this is her best album yet. This was absolutely the direction she needed to go with her music, both sonically and thematically. In cutting out the toxic people and taking the high road, Kelly Clarkson has finally proven what fans knew all along: she’s got hella soul. If Kelly’s music stays this good, we’ll never have to call her new eras a “comeback” ever again.