Kelly Clarkson has had an interesting career so far. Aside from being the winner of the original season of American Idol, she’s also one of the most relevant Idol contestants around the world. This could be attributed to the consistent quality of her music, in production if not in entertainment factor. Both her Christmas album Wrapped In Red and her last studio album Stronger were changing it up in different ways, and Piece By Piece is a continuation of the stronger pop direction she was starting to dabble with on Stronger.
With the release of the album’s first single Heartbeat Song, things weren’t looking too bright for Piece By Piece. It was a decent song, but didn’t really do much to keep listeners interested past one or two repeats. Unsurprisingly, the same can be said for the rest of the album. Songs all fall between the spectrum of spacey synth-heavy mid-tempo songs and predictable power ballads, with not much else happening on the album.
Thanks to the work of primary album producers Greg Kurstin and Jason Halbert, the album at least manages to sound good. The songs are all perfectly produced, and work on an individual scale if not as a collective album. Songs like Invincible give Kelly a chance to show off her singing skills again, with her high note ad-libbing in the background of the final chorus being the best example.
Meanwhile, songs with overlying themes behind their lyrics or titles sometimes get appropriate elements added to give them their own identity in the context of the album. Moments such as the tribal style drums in the middle eight of War Paint and the sounds of an old radio switching stations at the start of Nostalgic allow them to be easily identified compared to the rest of the songs. The 80s feel of Nostalgic also makes it a front runner for best track on the album, making it standing out from the modern songs surrounding it.
The only song to completely find its own space in the album is Bad Reputation, which trades in the synths and balladry for an R&B pop hybrid, similar in style to her second ever single Miss Independent. The style suits her voice better than the synth-heavy songs on the album, and acts as a welcome change of pace for the album. It’s something that Kelly could have experimented with more, and it’s unfortunate that she didn’t.
It’s hard to say whether Piece By Piece is an improvement or a step back from Stronger. It’s as consistent as all of Kelly’s albums tend to be, and the production work is good. The one thing that the album lacks is soul, coming off as being more of a pop product than a labour of love. Seven albums into her career, it’s getting harder to tell whether she’s invested in the products or being steered in this direction by someone else. Piece By Piece is guaranteed to appeal to existing Kelly fans, but anyone else won’t find much to write home about here.