Strip Me, the sort-of provocative title for Natasha Bedingfield third U.S. release, suggests that the singer might have incorporated the tawdry style of Katy Perry and Ke$ha into her brand of sunny pop, but the album is yet another iteration of TashBed’s increasingly grating up-with-people shtick. Not that pop needs another starlet trying to out-whore her contemporaries, but Strip Me is so single-minded in its uplifting, inspirational tone that it raises questions as to whether or not Bedingfield can really do anything else.
To the singer’s credit, she’s smart enough to know that, if she’s not updating the content of her songs to even the slightest degree, she needs to work with a relevant team of producers if she’s going to continue to have any chance of making a dent on the pop charts. Which, alas, means that Strip Me includes a whole lot of Ryan Tedder’s trademark echo-heavy, CAPSLOCK drum-machine arrangements. There’s something meta about the laziness in the production of the title track, in that Bedingfield hasn’t changed her tune since the days of “Unwritten,” so Tedder gives the song only the most insignificant of variations on his “Halo” and “Already Gone” template. Bedingfield uses her raspy warble to full effect, singing lines like “I’m only one voice in a million/But you ain’t takin’ that from me” as though her very life depended on it, but it’s nothing that either she or Tedder haven’t already done better before.
The same can be said of Kleerup, who brings a steely, electronic chill to “Break Thru,” but the slightness of the arrangement makes for a poor approximation of his progressive, forward-thinking work with Robyn. John Shanks’s production on “All I Need” more or less takes the rapid BPM approach he brought to Bedingfield’s “Pocketful of Sunshine” and applies it to a sample of Kevin Rudolf’s “Let It Rock.” It isn’t that the production on Strip Me is bad per se, it’s that Bedingfield lacks either the commercial clout or the artistic cachet to command these producers’ best material. It makes for an album that sounds phoned in and at least a couple of years behind the curve.
The safe, polished production is nonetheless a good match to Bedingfield’s saccharine songwriting. Empowerment and positivity are all well and good, and she makes for an enthusiastic cheerleader, insisting on “All I Need” that she’ll let whatever life throws at her “roll right off [her] back” and reminding herself on “Weightless” that she’s “not like anyone else.” The problem with Strip Me and Bedingfield’s overall approach is that she never actually makes an effort to provide a sense of balance. Not that she needs to wallow in misery, but the album smacks of willful blindness, since the closest Bedingfield comes to a more complete, more mature worldview are a couple of throwaway lines about how “Everybody hurts just a little too much” and an insistence, on the tedious piano ballad “Recover,” that her scratches and scars will heal.
That the album lacks an anchored counterpoint gives Strip Me all the depth of a “Hang in There!” cat poster. That Bedingfield uses her powerful voice to oversing most of her material, shouting her way through songs like “Try” and “Touch,” makes Strip Me feel like even more of a sermon. It may not be the year’s worst pop album, but Strip Me might just be the most exhausting and heavy-handed.