In response to rumors that label boss Clive Davis didn’t want to release My December because he deemed it too “negative” and reportedly offered her $10 million to scrap some of the songs, Kelly Clarkson told Entertainment Weekly: “It’s not Metallica.” Hell, it’s not even Evanescence. The press about the album, not to mention fans’ hysterical, hypercritical reaction to its lead single, “Never Again,” which is a slightly harder, slightly less immediate version of almost every song on Breakaway, would have us believe that My December is some radical departure for Clarkson, but it’s really just a logical progression—if not exactly a refinement—of the fingerless-gloved rock-chick persona the singer has created for herself in the years since her crowning as the premier American Idol.
Complicating matters, of course, is the fact that Clarkson cancelled her arena tour due to poor ticket sales and ditched her manager just two weeks before the album’s release (which will only fuel rumors of internal turmoil surrounding the project), and “Never Again” is under-performing on the charts—as if anything that followed the monster smash that was Breakaway could have lived up to that album’s of-the-moment success. The single is being quickly followed-up with the even slower-burning ballad “Sober.” But who cares about hits—or appeasing the kids—when the songs are this good? “Irvine” is like Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For A Film)” as performed by Sheryl Crow, a hauntingly personal account of post-performance despondency that likely gave Clive pause: “Why can’t you just take me?/I don’t have much to go/Before I fade completely.” It’s not so much the letter-to-God lyrics but the disturbing way America’s girl-next-door sings them that will raise eyebrows.
Like Breakaway, My December’s rockers have a tendency to sound same-y, with hushed cautionary intros and lower-register verses followed by full-voiced hooks and dramatic, belted bridges, all in the name of heartbreak and revenge. With “Since U Been Gone” and “Behind These Hazel Eyes,” Clarkson was only playing dress up. This time someone’s really broken her heart and, with a hand in writing every song on the album, she’s making sure several million people know about it: “I hope the ring you gave to her turns her finger green,” goes the seething opening line to “Never Again.” Simon Cowell and others in the media have pointed out that Clarkson isn’t your sexy, slim-waisted pop star, and it’s this fact that has made her so accessible to her largely young, female fanbase and it’s also what gives her contemptuous references to “trophy wives” (on two different songs) the kind of authenticity only an artist as proudly “average” as Clarkson could.
Though My December cuts much of the adult contemporary-style balladry that marred her first two releases (but also displayed more than just her shouting vocal range), the album still finds Clarkson further exploring different facets of her voice, which is capable of much more than just cookie-cutter pop/rock: she injects a little funk swagger into the brassy “Yeah” and offers up some acoustic soul on the hidden track “Chivas.” And for those with the misinformed idea that My December isn’t mainstream enough, there’s plenty of pop to be found in songs like “How I Feel” and “Can I Have A Kiss.” Clarkson, however, sounds most at home on guitar-driven garage-pop like “Hole,” and the greatest artists have taught by example that if you follow your instincts, the fans will usually follow. After all, this is a girl who tellingly chose to sing Madonna’s “Express Yourself”—as opposed to, say, “I Will Always Love You”—at her American Idol audition.