Clarkson has always brought a sharp authenticity and feisty independence to her recording career. The popular “Kellyoke” segment on her daytime program has become a showcase for her genuine appreciation for all sorts of music and proof that she can sing expertly in just about any genre.
“Chemistry” never quite lives up to her reputation for excellence, though, and it fails to find a sound that fits the rawness of much of its subject matter. The album is often a showcase for the elemental power of Clarkson’s voice and occasionally for her clever turns of phrase as a lyricist, but the arrangements too often rely on modern pop clichés rather than push for innovation or reach back to the soulful traditionalism of her 2017 LP, “Meaning of Life.”
The production — helmed by Clarkson’s longtime musical director Jason Halbert and her frequent producer Shatkin, along with new collaborators Rachel Orscher and Erica Serna — often feels excessively compressed and synthetic, keeping Clarkson’s voice and emotion at an unfortunate remove. “Down to You,” with its sassy, hair-flipping energy, has a few zingers — “I tried to be your friend/I won’t make that mistake again” — but its sputtering, faceless chorus demands about 1 percent of her voice’s potential wattage.
The wrenching, piano-driven torch song “Lighthouse,” on the other hand, gives her a little more breathing space and puts a spotlight on one of the album’s most impassioned vocal performances. “My Mistake” relies on a more synthetic pop sound, but its swooping melody gives her more room to vamp. It’s one of only two songs on the record Clarkson didn’t help write; she imbues the other, the booming, ’80s-inspired pop-rock standout “High Road,” with a lived-in weariness and convincing emotional maturity: “To become stronger, you have to listen/Keep it open, don’t try to hide it/And if you need love, don’t try to fight it.”
Perhaps surprisingly for a record born from the heartbreak of divorce, “Chemistry” is at its most distinct when it abandons the weight of pathos and allows Clarkson to get loose. Across the final trio of songs, starting with the octave-leaping “Red Flag Collector,” she switches gears into a more conversational delivery — teasing out a sensibility shared by country, cabaret and Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never, Ever Getting Back Together” — and lets her quirky personality lead. Steve Martin, of all people, plays banjo on the stylistically restless “I Hate Love,” while Sheila E. provides percussion on the breezy finale “That’s Right.”