Though she’s got an impressive six platinum albums to her name, Kelly Clarkson should be competing with commercial juggernauts like Taylor Swift and Adele, in the past proving herself capable of the former’s shrewd reinventions and the latter’s vocal prowess. But the last decade has seen the singer abandon both of those proclivities, apparently content to ride the cookie-cutter pop-rock bus she hopped on in the mid aughts with the likes of Pink until the wheels fall off. What with its retro cover art and occasional nods to ’80s power-pop, Clarkson’s seventh album, Piece by Piece, is in many ways analogous to 1989. Clarkson, however, has been mining this territory since before Swift even landed her first record deal, and songs that should ostensibly inspire nostalgia (like the pointedly titled aerobics workout “Nostalgic”) instead feel like they just rolled off a conveyor belt. Lead single “Heartbeat Song” is tight and shiny, its staccato guitars and bubblegum chorus reminiscent of both Clarkson’s biggest hits and, oddly, Jimmy Eat World’s brand of post-punk. But Clarkson and her collaborators have so perfected the execution of this formula that it’s practically critic-proof, its biggest flaw being a lack of human fault whatsoever. If anyone could do justice to a Sia-penned power ballad, it’s the American Idol champ, and she does right by the otherwise boilerplate “Invincible,” but the welcome imperfections apparent in Clarkson’s voice on her 2013 holiday collection Wrapped in Red, her best album since My December, have sadly been spit-polished away here. Aside from a John Legend-assisted cover of German rock band Tokio Hotel’s “Run Run Run,” Piece by Piece’s biggest departure is the repeated use of some inventive digital vocal tinkering, most notable on the standout “Take You High,” the hook of which is chopped up to exhilarating, operatic effect. It’s a refreshingly unexpected moment on an album—and in a career—with far too few of them.
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