Many veterans of "American Idol" use words like "freedom" and "liberation" to describe the albums they make after exiting the tightly managed singing competition, which will return to television next year on ABC after its cancellation by Fox in 2016.
But Kelly Clarkson, who won the show's first season in 2002, is only now throwing those terms around. In several recent interviews, she's referred to her lengthy post-"Idol" deal with RCA Records as an "arranged marriage."
Finally free from the label she says never valued her input — even as it helped her score monster hits like "Since U Been Gone" and "Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)" — Clarkson wants us to regard "Meaning of Life," her first project for Atlantic, as a hard-won expression of her true artistic sensibility.
"I was patient but not anymore / It's back in my hands," she sings in the new album's "I Don't Think About You," which could address a former lover or a former business partner, "You swore I'd never do it / But it's your time to face the music."
So what does the real Clarkson sound like? On "Meaning of Life," the 35-year-old Texas native turns away from super-charged pop-rock and embraces a slightly more relaxed R&B style; her motivating impulse, she told the New York Times, was imagining what kind of record her childhood idol, Aretha Franklin, would make today.
That means weighty grooves, tart horns, churchy organ — and of course, Clarkson's fire-hose of a voice, which she uses more loosely here than in the past, allowing herself the kind of florid vocal runs and spirited ad libs that wouldn't have fit in a precisely calibrated pop production like "My Life Would Suck Without You."
Indeed, "Meaning of Life" is best when Clarkson has the most room to sing, as in "Cruel," a slow-rolling retro-soul number, and "Move You," which feels like an appealingly unpolished version of her sparkly 2009 hit "Already Gone."
But on too much of this album the production is still far too busy; it's just the tones and textures that have changed, not the degree to which the tracks are getting in her way (or, in many cases, the familiar writers and producers responsible for those tracks).
And because the songs are generally slower, the music lacks the tension of a tune like "Since U Been Gone" — an unhappy artifact for Clarkson, perhaps, but one that powerfully communicates a sense of chafing against limitations.
Lyrically too the songs could be sharper. Plenty has happened in Clarkson's life in the last few years, including her marriage to Brandon Blackstock (who also manages Clarkson's career) and the births of her two children. Yet for an album that promises revelation, "Meaning of Life" is full of generalities.
"You show me love / You lift me up / You take me higher and higher," she sings in the title track, lines that hardly take advantage of Clarkson's new creative license. In "Whole Lotta Woman" she lays out the makings of a "badass chick with classic confidence," but ends up with a pile of Southern clichés about iced tea and "warm biscuits on a Sunday morning"; the result plays like a female answer to "Boys 'Round Here" by another of Blackstock's clients, Blake Shelton.
One welcome exception is the gorgeously spare "Slow Dance," in which Clarkson recalls the beginning of a romance in vivid, intimate language that puts you right between her and her guy.
"How did you go from being a mama's boy to a ladies' man?" she sings — moans, really — over a laid-back shuffle with some serious Etta James in it, "I'm not going home with you tonight but you can hold my hand."
To insist that Clarkson make more songs like "Slow Dance" is of course to misunderstand the point of her album. But this is where her freedom rings.