The key line on Kelly Clarkson's new album comes during a song co-written by Katy Perry, of all people: "Why's everything got to be so intense with me?" the singer wonders on the sing-song Long Shot.
Clarkson is one emphatic sob sister, it's true, ratcheting up the relationship drama in her songs with the exaggerated moves of a silent film actress. No matter the stage of the romance, it's always DEFCON 1 in Clarkson-ville. And on All I Ever Wanted, out Tuesday, that melodrama translates into a delightfully incongruous good time.
The inaugural American Idol winner certainly has the vocal chops for such zero-to-60 histrionics, but her material hasn't always borne up under the pressure. On 2007's often bleak My December, Clarkson's high-class voice, fraught with emotion, was often filled with low-down bitterness - which would have been fine if there had been a few more glimmers of melody in the tracks, all of which she co-wrote. But the pop-star-next-door zip of her first two albums was in short supply.
On her fourth album, All I Ever Wanted, Clarkson the songwriter — she co-wrote six of 14 here — is learning to strike the age-old pop music balance that her hired hands perfected in the past. She's expressing emotional truth while crafting something that sounds good on the radio. As the shiny first single, My Life Would Suck Without You (written by Since U Been Gone tunesmith Max Martin and his crew), makes plain, compromise is clearly no longer a curse word for Clarkson.
The singer has reached out for more gold-plated songwriting and producing help than she had on My December, and it shows; tune for tune, this is a much more richly melodic album. I Do Not Hook Up and the title song instantly lodge in the brain, even as their bittersweet sentiments drip a bit of acid.
The Texas native is gleefully indulging her many interests here, hopscotching through genres as if picking wildflowers. There's a synthy Killers-style disco jam (If I Can't Have You), an inspirational piano ballad (If No One Will Listen), and a soaring rocker in the U2 mold, complete with chiming electric guitar (Save You).
All these dips and detours might feel like so much shallow carpetbagging if Clarkson and her studio magicians hadn't made them such sleek slices of earnest fun (although a few of them have a trebly, compressed sound that grows tiresome after a while). The bubblegum punk thrash of Whyyawannabringmedown is ridiculous, middle-class bedroom rebellion, but darn if the scratchy guitars and her pouty shout aren't cathartic. An attempt at indie pop on Ready produces a jaunty sound, falling somewhere between the Beach Boys and Feist while offering the tart romantic complaint: "Too much of your mouth is like too much sun."
Even Clarkson's strange sidestep into the vintage soul sweepstakes, I Want You — which sounds as if it were swiped from Duffy so quickly that the British singer's backing vocals are still attached — is difficult to resist.
And why should you? Clarkson didn't. Intensity and tunefulness are not mutually exclusive, it turns out, which means Clarkson can have her angst and dance to it too.