As a writing professor once told me, irony is corrosive: Once an artist delves into irony as a creative device, it is all but impossible to approach any of his or her subsequent work without the skepticism required to strip away irony's artifice to find greater meaning. Pop superstar Kelly Clarkson provides a perfect illustration of this point on her fourth album, All I Ever Wanted. From the cartoon-colored, airbrushed cover art and the use of garish Auto-Tune effects on literally the last voice in contemporary pop that would ever need to use it, to some production choices that are so obvious in their pandering that they come across as sarcastic, much of the record is characterized by an air of, at best, brattiness and, at worst, condescension that makes it an album of loaded intention and internal conflict.
Not that Clarkson isn't entitled to this attitude: Based on the handling of her moody, unjustly maligned My December by both the industry and the media, it actually makes sense that her next public maneuver would be one that's this reactionary. But the result of her "So you want an industry-saving pop album?" posture is that Wanted lacks a distinct identity of its own and instead apes the styles of many other of-the-moment pop singles. Call it Clarkson's version of Now That's What I Call Music! 29.
That nearly every song here has a direct point of comparison that exists entirely outside of the context of the album itself—starting with underwhelming lead single "My Life Would Suck Without You," which desperately copies the structure of the singer's own "Since U Been Gone"—makes for a scattershot, confused listen. And, again, it calls the sincerity of expression into question. On "Suck," the way Clarkson flattens her affect on the line, "Either way, I found out/I'm nothing without you," is the aural equivalent of the singer rolling her eyes. And if she doesn't sound like she's serious when recalling her own best single, why should anyone believe that she's serious when recalling Duffy on the frankly awful "I Want You" or Leona Lewis on the album-closing inspirational power-ballad "If No One Will Listen"? It's a good thing Clarkson is so likable or the album might come across as an impossibly smug stunt performance.
It's precisely that likability that distinguishes Clarkson from the attention-whoring Katy Perry or a cipher like Lewis, and it's the remarkable balance of technical skill and lived-in versatility in her voice that elevates her above the icy Rihanna and the tone-deaf Taylor Swift. So, regardless of questions of sincerity, it's up to Clarkson to perform the heavy lifting here, and she's generally up to that challenge, even when she's hamstrung by puzzling production choices. The use of electronic vocal enhancement throughout the album, in particular, is a liability: It strips the natural warmth of her voice on "Cry," making her delivery sound distant and tinny, and gives a synthetic tone to her performances on the otherwise terrific "If I Can't Have You." Ryan Tedder's production on "Already Gone" is identical to Beyoncé's "Halo" to the point of distraction, but the former song has a far stronger melody and Clarkson turns in one of her most evocative performances. The bombastic orchestral arrangement and multi-tracked vocals on "Save You" are overdone, but the strength of Clarkson's dramatic vocal turn still shines through.
The uptempo, rock-leaning cuts don't fare quite as well with their obvious comparisons. "Don't Let Me Stop You" isn't done any favors by using the exact same chord progression in its introduction as "Behind These Hazel Eyes," and the way Clarkson's gritty performance is smothered in the mix makes it sound like a poor approximation of Pink's recent singles. Her throat-shredding punk snarl on "Whyyawannabringmedown" is a whole lot more fun than it is convincing, and it doesn't say much that her take on "I Do Not Hook Up" improves on Perry's original demo version.
Taken in isolation and out of the context of the album as a whole—say, on the radio—nearly all of these songs work well enough, despite the production choices that don't always play to Clarkson's strengths and which draw too much attention to themselves. And if all Clarkson ever wanted was a major commercial comeback, then this album should undoubtedly give it to her. But whatever her army of producers and legion of co-writers may have brought to the project in terms of radio-ready pop hooks, there's just too much tone and subtext to her performances here—and hell, even consider the record's title—that betrays Clarkson's ironic take on the whole affair. As put-ons go, Wanted isn't subtle: Clarkson may be able to pull off this kind of pop vehicle better than any of her peers, but it seems clear from her defense of My December and from the ironic stance she's adopted on and toward its follow-up that she wants something more.