RCA Records

Throughout her career, Kelly Clarkson has consistently received kudos for her commanding voice and ferocious declarations of self-empowerment. However, her versatility as a performer is far more intrinsic to her enduring success. In recent years, the native Texan has released a Christmas album, crossed over to mainstream country (the Jason Aldean duet “Don’t You Wanna Stay”), honored songwriters Patti Page and Carole King at the Grammys, and even dabbled in standards (“Little Green Apples,” a duet with Robbie Williams on his 2013 swing album).

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Unfortunately, Clarkson’s many (and diverse range of) talents are muted on her seventh studio album, Piece By Piece. The album’s music—a contemporary but anemic-sounding conglomeration of pulsating electro-pop, orchestra-kissed ballads, and sweeping R&B—often doesn’t play to her strengths. Songs such as “Let Your Tears Fall” and “Someone” lack the kind of memorable, meaty hooks on which she thrives, while the Katy Perry-esque “Dance With Me” pairs empty lyrics (“And when the music starts and the lights go down we will all be found / No one’s fightin’ anyone”) with generic, ’80s-style synth-pop. The latter song should be a rainbow-and-glitter blast of carefree rabble-rousing; instead, it’s a half-hearted, tired-sounding plea to get moving.

Clarkson is far more engaging on Piece By Piece when she’s working with familiar themes: being strong enough to show your true self and not compromise your morals (the danceable, aggressive electro riot “War Paint”; the gospel-tinged, Like A Prayer-era Madonna jam “I Had A Dream”) and asserting your self-confidence (standout “Invincible,” on which she triumphantly exclaims, “I have courage now / Gonna shout it out / Teacher, I feel the dots connecting”). “Run Run Run”—a velvety song popularized by Tokio Hotel last year, and on this album featuring John Legend—is a stark, piano-first dirge dripping with equal parts heartache and redemption. And the rather pointed title track revisits her parents’ divorce: The song’s lyrics stress that Clarkson’s husband is a good father and spouse who loves her unconditionally and won’t leave their daughter—unlike her father. (Ouch.)

Ultimately, Piece By Piece could use more of this emotional complexity and personal connection. But it could also stand to be a little less conventional, especially since Clarkson’s the rare pop star who sounds most comfortable when she’s not playing it safe. Her voice cracks with bluesy grit on “Nostalgic,” an electro-rock song that would’ve fit on Tegan And Sara’s Heartthrob, while the chorus of “Take You High” adds digital scribbles to her vocals, a modern flourish that balances out the song’s soaring strings. Piece By Piece sounds energized during these looser moments; it’s hard to shake the feeling the album would’ve been far better had it taken a few more risks.

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