My December

Are you on Team Kelly or Team Clive? It seems like everybody chose sides before even hearing My December, Kelly Clarkson’s darker, more personal, riskier third CD. There are those who see her as a bird escaping a gilded cage, co-writing her entire album and bravely forsaking the hitmakers Clive Davis assigned to 2004’s five-times-platinum Breakaway. Others view Clarkson as a spoiled brat, so impressed by her success that she’s telling the industry’s most established father figure to take a hike.

Recent management changes and her canceled tour have furthered the assumption that December must be a train wreck. It’s not. There’s real artistry blossoming on this, the boldest and best effort ever by an Idol star.

That’s not to say that Davis was off his rocker when he purportedly didn’t hear a hit, because the disc does lack even half as obvious a smash as ”Since U Been Gone.” There was subversive fun to be had in witnessing America’s sweetheart using ”Never Again,” the he-done-me-wrong first single, to reinvent herself as a banshee (wishing gangrene on an enemy, no less). But she’s not playing to her strengths when paying pissy homage to Jagged Little Pill, even if she is channeling Alanis Morissette by way of the octave-spanning Pat Benatar.

Where Clarkson hits us with her best shot is in the confessionals in which she ditches the blame game and draws her own blood. She’s not as close to catching up with her songwriting idol, Patty Griffin, as she is to her belter heroine, Benatar. Nonetheless, Clarkson’s most vulnerable moments are accomplished and affecting — from the frisky pleadings of ”Can I Have a Kiss” to the near-suicidal despair of ”Irvine.” If you ever wondered what Sarah McLachlan would sound like with an extra set of lungs, check out ”Maybe”; it’s a great slow build of a ballad in which Clarkson fantasizes about how the guy who got away would really understand her, if only she had another chance. The sentiment reeks of desperation, but with vocal willpower this indomitable, you’re surprised her ex hasn’t been sucked into the studio by song’s end.

But just when you think Miss Independent has morphed into Miss Misery, Clarkson unleashes some lighter pleasures that (take note, Team Clive!) would make dandy warm-weather singles — much more than ”Never Again” or ”Sober,” the moody second release. ”One Minute” percolates with electro-pop energy; ”How I Feel” is a one-woman new-wave revival; and the funk-rock ”Yeah” suggests that she’s an R&B sex bomb waiting to happen. Still, basking in the winter of My December‘s greater discontent isn’t such a bad way to chill this summer, either.

My December
  • Music