Kelly Clarkson claims Meaning of Life, her first album after parting ways with longtime label RCA Records, is the soul record she’s wanted to make since being crowned the inaugural winner of American Idol 15 years ago. Ironically, though, the 1960s-style R&B of songs like “Don’t You Pretend” and “Meaning of Life” is closer in style to that of her 2002 debut, Thankful, which ran the gamut from adult contemporary to urban pop, than the series of pop-rock-leaning efforts that would go on to define Clarkson’s career.
Aside from Meaning of Life’s sonic and stylistic consistency, one notable difference between the material here and songs like “The Trouble with Love Is” is the rawness of Clarkson’s vocals. The frayed edges of the singer’s voice, largely scrubbed away on 2015’s Piece by Piece, are played as assets here. Her voice feels lived-in and wizened on the understated “Move You,” and she turns in a sultry performance on the country-inflected barroom ballad “Slow Dance.”
Classic soul tropes are juxtaposed with modern touches like vocal loops and pitched-up vocals on “Heat” and the Michelle Obama-inspired “Go High,” respectively. The shift from pop-rock to pop-soul suits Clarkson, who seems more confident—vocally and artistically—than she’s ever been. Her performance on the album’s first single, the brassy “Love So Soft,” is punctuated by playful vocal swoops and hiccups, and the unapologetic “Whole Lotta Woman,” a quasi-update of “Miss Independent,” finds her imploring a “little country boy” to love her “like a warm biscuit on a Sunday morning.” (She’s so hungry for it that she practically eats the microphone.)
Though “Medicine” was inspired by Mariah Carey’s “Emotions” (that is to say, the Emotions’s “Best of My Love”), Clarkson’s rich, throaty vocal tics are more vintage Whitney than Mimi. Meaning of Life doesn’t reinvent the genre, nor does it try to, but it portrays an artist continuing to redefine herself—in the process, solidifying her position as one of her generation’s greatest singers.