Retrospective Album Review: Kelly Clarkson harnesses her vindictive energy on ‘Breakaway’

While America’s first “Idol” misses on some of the deep cuts, she still delivers some of the best pop hits of the 2000s.

After winning the inaugural season of “American Idol,” Kelly Clarkson experienced commercial success that vastly exceeded previous talent show winners. Shows like “Star Search” were notorious in the American music industry for churning and burning artists out, with few success stories to speak of. Grammy-nominated Blues singer Beth Hart has said that winning Star Search was more detrimental to her career than a benefit, as talent shows were perceived as the easy route to success as opposed to slowly building an audience over years of live gigs.

Despite the odds being stacked against her, much like Will Young after winning “Pop Idol” in the UK just a few months prior, Clarkson’s debut single “A Moment Like This” topped the Billboard Hot 100 and became the fastest-selling single of 2002. It shattered a decades-old record held by The Beatles for the largest leap to No. 1 in history, after ascending from to the summit from No. 52. Critics were quick to point out that this was likely American Idol’s success more than Clarkson’s, and she knew had more to prove, having openly pined about how the single has “never felt like me.” While she followed up that No. 1 hit with a Top 10 hit in “Miss Independent,” the subsequent singles from her debut album Thankful dissipated without much noise.

With American Idol continuing to anoint new winners, Clarkson was running out of time to establish herself. She asserted more creative control for her sophomore album, breaking with her manager and American Idol producer Simon Fuller to pursue a Pop-Rock sound. The resulting album, Breakaway, was a massive commercial success, credited with not only reshaping Clarkson’s career but the landscape of Pop across the globe.

The album’s tracklist kicks off with a firework spectacular: opening with the unexpected smash title track, Breakaway then proceeds directly into singles No. 2, 3, and 4, “Since U Been Gone,” “Behind These Hazel Eyes,” and “Because of You.” These songs, undoubtedly some of the strongest pop singles of the millennium, carry the album to the finish line, along with a late-game assist from the 5th single and runt of the litter, “Walk Away.” While there are strong tracks outside of these five, the deep cuts represent a significant drop in quality overall.

With Clarkson making a clean break from the R&B sound that catapulted her to the crown on Idol and her subsequent debut album, it makes sense for Breakaway to emulate that theme. Freedom rings on all eleven of the record’s tracks, as she liberates herself from, of course, romantic relationships, but also family trauma. With that liberty that accompanies being a young adult comes consequence, as the then 22-year-old Clarkson is free to stumble and make mistakes on her own accord. She falls under the spell of addiction on track 6 and literally “hates [herself]” for her mistakes on track 10.

That’s not to say that all is bad for America’s sweetheart. The Avril Lavigne penned “Breakaway” is sanguine, encapsulating the whimsical atmosphere of 2004 with effortless ease, and will be the best bus and plane ride soundtrack imaginable for the foreseeable future. It’s colorful “Da-da-da, un, da-da” hook has been a relentless earworm over the last decade and a half, painting a mood that is impossible to pin down. With Clarkson being known for her soaring soprano vocals, “Breakaway” offers a more restrained performance that demonstrates her ability to move even when staying in the middle of the staff.

However, that halcyon energy doesn’t last long as the record segues into the career-defining smash hit “Since U Been Gone.” Its full-throated chorus and Strokes-like guitar riffs set the gold standard for Pop-Rock anthems and deservingly sits atop that mantle. While many in the years since – including Clarkson – have tried to recapture that lightning in a bottle, any attempt to emulate is cursed to sound like a Walmart quality knock off.

“Behind These Hazel Eyes” is the fan-favorite track and might have earned an impressive legacy of its own had it not been the follow up to “Since U Been Gone.” It’s one of the darker tracks on the record, in part thanks to Aaron Moody’s hand in the production. Clarkson’s work with Moody, guitarist of the then red hot Evanescence, foreshadowed what was to come with her follow up record, the irate and exasperated My December. But “Eyes” doesn’t slip that far into vengeance, striking the right balance of revenge and heartbreak to keep that sweet, poppy appeal. Here, Clarkson offers a knockout vocal performance, perhaps the best on the record, as she unleashes a flurry F#s in the final chorus in the midst of her emotional devastation.

Though “Gone” – no, not “Since U Been Gone” – is another fan favorite, it doesn’t offer much else that the other singles have already put up, and there’s little variety in the tracks that follow. There’s a flash of R&B on “I Hate Myself For Losing You,” but the rest of the album sticks to its core Jagged Little Pill like sound. The album’s greatest weakness quite obviously lies in its ballads and midtempos. Both “I Hate Myself For Losing You” and “Where Is Your Heart” are about as banal and generic as they come, though, of course, Clarkson still sings them with the same conviction as any other track.

Although Clarkson wobbles on 2 out of the 3 ballads on the album, she also delivers an undeniable classic with “Because Of You.” Written when Clarkson was 16 as she wrestled with the fallout of her parent’s vitriolic divorce, she delivers a poignant portrait of teenage emotion at their most raw: “My heart can’t possibly break / When it wasn’t even whole to start with.” The song more than earns its final key change, as she goes all-in on the melodrama with deadly accuracy.

Breakaway, like the rest of Clarkson’s discography, is a little inconsistent. Its highs are as rugged and tall as the highest mountain, and while its lows don’t necessarily crater, they feel about as flat as Kansas. As the album has aged, it has yet to establish a legacy as a Pop standard like its commercial stats – over 12,000,000 copies worldwide(!) – might suggest that it would. It’s unfortunate that the middle half of the album drags as hard as it does, for if Clarkson had been given more time to polish, she could’ve had a classic album instead of just classic songs.

Listen to ‘Breakaway’ on Spotify now.

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