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‘Meaning of Life’ review: Kelly Clarkson’s soulful stunner

Kelly Clarkson's

Kelly Clarkson's "Meaning of Life" is her eighth studio album and her first on Atlantic. Photo Credit: Atlantic

KELLY CLARKSON

“Meaning of Life”

BOTTOM LINE Finding pop perfection by turning to old-school soul.

Kelly Clarkson can sing anything.

It’s a combination of her pre-“American Idol” karaoke roots and the richness of her powerful voice that makes her one of the most versatile singers around. However, on her new album “Meaning of Life,” her first since moving to Atlantic Records, Clarkson is focusing on a more soulful sound than usual and the results are stunning.

The first single “Love So Soft” sounds like a Motown update, especially when paired with the upbeat “Heat,” with both songs using an arrangement that allows Clarkson’s lead vocals to shine by surrounding it with strong backing vocals. She takes the retro-soul vibe to the next level with the gorgeous “Slow Dance,” where she wonders “How did you go from being a mama’s boy to a ladies’ man?” on top of bluesy guitar riffs. It nicely complements the powerful “Don’t You Pretend,” which taps into the same vibe that served Rihanna so well in “Love on the Brain.”

Clarkson isn’t content with simply mining old-school soul, though. She looks to innovate, as she does in “Whole Lotta Woman,” where she takes a throwback soul arrangement and adds intricate, current R&B phrasing and lyrics like “I’m a strong, bad-ass chick with classic confidence” to create something new.

Of course, Clarkson can still thrill with a ballad, as well. She has a doozy with the poignant “Move You,” which elegantly combines gospel and pop. And on the piano ballad “I Don’t Think About You” she goes full Mariah Carey, showcasing her multi-octave range and walking the line between vulnerability and defiance in a way that is as timeless as Carey’s debut.

Clarkson has had finer singles, but “Meaning of Life” is the best album of her career, a chance to declare her ambitions and deliver on them time and time again for her most cohesive album yet.

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