Nearly 13 years have passed since Kelly Clarkson won the first season of “American Idol.”
Since then, unlike many of her fellow “Idol” champs, the native of Fort Worth, Texas, has sustained a successful career in music, dropping 10 hits on the Top 10 list and selling more than 12 million albums in the United States alone.
Clarkson is 32, married and the mother of a baby girl born in June. She just released “Piece by Piece,” her seventh studio album and her first since “Wrapped in Red,” a collection of Christmas songs, released in 2013. Despite her new status as a wife and mother, she hasn’t discarded the formulas that have made her a multi-platinum star for more than a decade. But she has tweaked them a bit.
“Piece by Piece” is loaded with beefy anthems, many that preach power and redemption — Clarkson’s stock in trade — but they’re more pop and power-pop than rock. And several tracks bear the traits of ’80s dance and synth pop, a departure for her.
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The album opens with “Heartbeat Song,” the title of which, Clarkson has said, was inspired by the baby that was inside her when she recorded it. Its verses bear a striking melodic resemblance to the Jimmy Eat World song “The Middle,” but the chorus is a joyous declaration of love that rides a titanium pop hook, one that gives her powerhouse voice room to roar and soar.
The production here is heavy and thick, air-tight and spit-shined, with nary a speck of imperfection left behind. There is some sonic experimentation, most notably in “Take You High,” in which some of Clarkson’s vocals are issued in shards of electronic sounds. The cover of Tokio Hotel’s “Run Run Run,” featuring guest vocalist John Legend, provides a brief moment of soul and another departure from all those pop anthems.
All is not sunny and cheerful on “Piece by Piece.” In the title track, the singer denounces the father who abandoned her when she was 6 and lauds the man who rescued her: “He takes care of me / He loves me / Piece by piece he restored my faith / That a man can be kind and a father could stay.”
Lyrically, that’s about as heavy as things get. The rest of the lyrics are pedestrian expressions of a variety of emotions: love, regret, joy, determination. From “War Paint,” a throbbing dance-pop tune and one of the album’s better tracks: “I’ll take off yours if you take off mine / Reveal the things that we’re trying to hide / We can be beautiful without our war paint.” Or from the inspirational anthem “I Had a Dream”: “Character is shown by the things that we do / The one thing you never gonna hide is the truth.”
Not a big deal. Clarkson’s lyrics have typically been secondary to other elements of her music, like the melodies, the grooves and her hefty voice. “Piece by Piece” delivers all of those with some mild surprises but absent a moment of significant risk or adventure.
No “Idol” winner has sustained a career longer than Clarkson, and if “Piece” is just a matter of her treading water or running to stand still, then she has acquitted herself respectably. There’s no telling how motherhood and marriage will change her, but longevity has treated her well.