Kelly Clarkson's My December

The real Breakaway, more pathos than pop and worse for it

Kelly Clarkson's label's rumored hatred of her new album–their disapproval of her decision to hire fewer songwriters, coupled with the abrupt cancellation of a too-optimistic tour–makes this a moment of reckoning not just for Clarkson, but for an empire that may finally have overextended itself. If Sony's right, it's the first real failure of a queenmaking system heretofore alarmingly lucrative; if they aren't, it's proof American Idol can survive even its victors' desires to get personal.

Sadly, this round goes to Sony. If 2004's Breakaway invaded Avril Lavigne territory–where the artist sprinkles statements of purpose amid professionals' excellent songs–My Decemberis her arrival at what more people might call authenticity if "Since U Been Gone" hadn't made that word go away. The album's longer, sloppier; there are Acoustic Laments; the first single, like most of the tracks, concerns a breakup we presume actually happened; the surprisingly deft second single, "Sober," is about being three months clean of . . . something. (Maybe a guy!) Clarkson takes her emotional cues from Breakaway's "Because of You"–soul-searching without ever finding fault–and unfortunately performs as if she's constantly approaching that song's climax. There's little here not sung in the flatlined keen that Clarkson's voice becomes when she belts, and the songs' dramatic arcs don't give her–or us–any time to take stock. Rockers blur into each other with a few exceptions ("Don't Waste Your Time," "How I Feel"); ballads blur into a lot worse than that.

It's this homogeneity that sinks the record. My December doesn't believe in happiness unearned by a dozen tracks of despair, and maybe it's right, but as a method of escaping Avrilian insincerity, it's dull beside Avril's own. Built on the old gamble that one person's heart makes better poetry than six people's paychecks, it's too one-note to win–too desirous of being real, and too convinced that anguish is more real than joy.

 
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