When Clarkson is aggrieved, all's right with the world. That dates to her 2004 album, "Breakaway," one of the most significant shapeshifts in recent pop memory, taking Clarkson from well-meaning "American Idol" winner to voice of the oppressed, thanks to venomous, high-energy rock-pop like "Since U Been Gone" and "Behind These Hazel Eyes."
She's wavered from that mission from time to time, trading her scorn for concern or reflection, but Clarkson's voice is simply too huge, too violent to be reined in by warm feelings. Her pungent fifth album mostly gets that point.
By now it's clear: Clarkson is on a par with Taylor Swift when it comes to vengeance, and she'll do it louder and with more brutality. On "You Love Me," Clarkson lays her anger at her emotional abuser's feet, then kicks it at him. More than half the songs here cover similar ground, including "I Forgive You," the intro of which is basically a "Since U Been Gone" cover; this happens on all of Clarkson's albums, though -- the shadow of that song, one of the pop highlights of the last decade, is too long to dodge completely.
That has made for some of the loudest albums in pop. Even though the producers here -- Greg Kurstin and Toby Gad -- mostly can't match the sheer intensity of the songs Clarkson made with Dr. Luke and Max Martin that set this template, they still shove other possibilities out of the frame. Essentially everything here involves Clarkson clobbering her subject while getting clobbered with guitars.
Long gone is Clarkson the aspiring R&B diva, gone is Clarkson the could-be country star. (To hear a couple of the many possible Clarksons, check out "The Smoakstack Sessions," an EP released this month that includes acoustic versions of some of the "Stronger" songs, along with a tepid version of Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me.") Clarkson is turning into the Mary J. Blige of pop: so good at being wounded that no one wants to let her heal.
You probably know how you feel about Waits. Those who struggle with his carnival-barker vocals and trash-can percussion won't necessarily be won over by "Bad as Me" -- which is a shame, because it showcases everything Waits does best. He serves up earthy, bluesy dance tunes ("Get Lost"); vitriolic, clangorous field hollers (the antiwar character study "Hell Broke Luce"), and plenty of witty, surprising turns of phrase. Best of all, "Bad as Me" features a bunch of sentimental, heartfelt ballads, including "The Last Leaf," with Keith Richards on guitar and backing vocals, and the sweetly crooned "Back in the Crowd."
As usual, Waits has assembled great players, among them guitarists David Hidalgo and Marc Ribot, bassists Flea and Les Claypool and keyboardist Augie Meyers. At times in the past, Waits could sound as though he was trying too hard to be unconventional and abrasive. This time, he sounds like he's having fun.
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