A flurry of success met Kelly Clarkson after she took out the inaugural season of American Idol in 2002, and subsequent seasons and countless other talent shows have taught us that this type of success often proves fleeting, a form of Warhol’s promised fifteen-minutes of fame. Yet, against the odds, Clarkson has managed to sustain her fame and relevance for fifteen years. Over those fifteen years, Clarkson has sought to control and expand her creative expression, to say and do more as an artist and performer than is simply expected of her as a talent show winner.
Meaning of Life is Clarkson’s eighth album, her first since her contract with RCA – who signed her straight from American Idol – ended and she signed with Atlantic, and her new-found freedom to expand her musical palette is writ large on the record. While Clarkson’s previous releases have featured smatterings of broader influences, they have clung steadfastly to the idea of Clarkson as a pop-rock singer. Her vocals can definitely lend themselves to this style, but with Meaning of Life she unequivocally offers up a pop album steeped in soul and R&B, which allows her additional room to showcase her powerful voice.
A Minute (Intro) opens proceedings with Clarkson pleading for a moment of time to herself. It may reflect her desire for creative freedom from the record label, or simply her experience as the mother of two young children. The soul music influence is felt strongly on lead single, Love So Soft, with a simple, but strong bassline, plenty of handclaps and sweet backing vocals, and Clarkson’s voice demonstrating a natural warmth. While the hip-hop/R&B inspired syncopations of the chorus don’t sit right, Clarkson’s tonality manages to pull it off, more or less.
Second single, Move You, beautifully layers and builds its instrumentation to achieve a dark, moody atmosphere but, much like the lyrics, everything quickly becomes overwrought. The titular Meaning of Life marginally overstays its welcome, while Whole Lotta Woman demonstrates pith and a nice gritty edge to Clarkson’s delivery. Cruel, at the album’s halfway mark, provides a welcome downshift to the tempo, Slow Dance makes good use of Clarkson’s voice while exhibiting solid pacing, and Go High closes the album strongly, creating a nice sense of tension in the music and letting the backing vocals shine.
If nothing else, Meaning of Life illustrates Clarkson’s desire to push her musical boundaries and establish the foundations of the next fifteen years of her career.