Clarkson strikes out on her own

November 2, 2007


When Kelly Clarkson released her third album, "My December," last June, many writers portrayed the cherub-cheeked ''American Idol'' winner turned defiant rocker grrrl as a valiant David battling the music industry Goliath of record company chief Clive Davis.

The 25-year-old Texas singer objected when Davis tried to repeat the winning formula of smash hits such as "Since U Been Gone" by pairing her with the best pop songwriters, musicians and producers that money could buy. This time, she was going to do things her way: recording her own darker, more serious songs with her chosen band in the more substantive style she claims to favor. (She cited Bruce Springsteen's ''Nebraska'' as a model.)

Although she and Davis have reportedly reconciled, Clarkson paid a price for rebelling against the star-making svengali: The new album hasn't been nearly as successful as its predecessors, ''Thankful'' (2003) and ''Breakaway'' (2004), and poor ticket sales forced the cancellation of a summer arena tour that was to have stopped at the Allstate Arena in July.

The star finally performed Thursday at the much smaller but by no means shabby Chicago Theatre, and the problem with the notion of ''Kelly as uncompromising heroine and artistic visionary'' became obvious: The new material -- which dominated the set -- is solipsistic, bombastic, joyless and utterly unconvincing, cribbing more from Pat Benatar and Loverboy than the Boss.

To bolster her attempt to convince us that she can rock hard and be, you know, really heavy, Clarkson blasted AC/DC music before taking the stage. But the gambit backfired: Few bands could shake us any harder all night long, and Kelly and her seven central-casting backing musicians weren't even on the same continent as those Aussie immortals in terms of being up to the task.

The best of Clarkson's older tunes -- ''Behind These Hazel Eyes,'' ''Miss Independent'' and ''Breakaway'' -- at least conveyed a sugary pop buzz. Like eating too much Halloween candy, you suspected you'd pay for it tomorrow with a stomachache or a trip to the dentist. But it sure tasted good going down.

In contrast, plodding new tunes such as "One Minute," "Never Again," ''Sober'' and ''Don't Waste Your Time'' were not only lacking in musical nourishment, they were as bitter and unpleasant as a mouthful of vinegar.

To be certain, Clarkson isn't lacking as a singer: Her voice is a soulful instrument capable of considerable power as well as gentle subtlety, as she showed midway through her 75-minute set when she paused to breathe during her own lovely ballad ''Be Still'' and indulge in the gospel stylings of Patty Griffin's ''Up to the Mountain.''

In the end, what Clarkson lacks is taste. Clearly, she needs someone to rein in her worst impulses and steer her in better directions. Davis may not be the best man for this job. But she's only done worse on her own.

Opening for Clarkson was piano-playing pop wannabe Jon McLaughlin, a well-groomed and overly polished singer-songwriter touring behind a debut album named for his home state: ''Indiana.''

Whether Chicago concertgoers were trying to be neighborly or they just appreciated the many times McLaughlin dropped Clarkson's name, the opener got a relatively warm reception -- though if I want Maroon 5/James Blunt-style easy-listening (and I don't), I'll turn to those acts.