In June 2016 Kelly Clarkson announced that she’d signed a new, long-term deal with Atlantic Records and was beginning work on an album influenced by soul and R&B. In May of this year at a conference in Nashville, she promised: “It’s got a lot of sass — like I might beat you up with my sound,” calling the album a mixture of “urban, pop, soulful R&B. My backup singers who’ve worked with me for years said ‘It’s the first time you’ve done a record that’s, like, full-on your personality.’”
A lucky few hundred people got an exclusive preview of that album, “Meaning of Life,” due on Oct. 27, at New York’s opulent Rainbow Room on Wednesday night. Accompanied by a 10-piece band — including, significantly, a three-piece horn section and the three backing singers she mentions above — Clarkson soared through six new songs and a souled-up take of her 2004 hit “Walk Away,” with her powerhouse voice and down-home humor both in rare form. At one point during the show, she joked, “I’m sweating like a very promiscuous woman in church!”
Just hours after the show, she dropped a Dave Myers-directed video for the first single from the album, “Love So Soft,” and it provides an accurate sampling of what the new material sounds like: punchy, soulful pop with attitude. Without pushing the analogy too far, it’s at times reminiscent of Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” album and Justin Timberlake’s more soulful efforts, although the ultra-soulful “Didn’t I” sounded like it could have been an outtake from one of Aretha Franklin’s classic late ‘60s albums on Atlantic. Clarkson’s face lit up when Variety made that comparison to her after the show — “That’s what we were going for!” she enthused.
Other songs performed included slower-tempo numbers like the Winehousesque title track and the gospel-inflected “Move You,” and “Whole Lotta Woman,” for which Clarkson provided a memorable introduction based on the culture of body-shaming.
“Everybody’s different!” she said. “There shouldn’t be shame on anything, whether people are too skinny or too blonde or brunette, there’s always BLEH, people talking. It’s like, ‘Are you that bored?’”
The songs give Clarkson’s powerful voice plenty of room to roam, from sultry on the slower numbers to full-scale belting on the rockers.
The performance was introduced by Atlantic co-chairmen Julie Greenwald and Craig Kallman, both of whom Clarkson thanked effusively for their work on the album, which found her working with a diverse team of songwriters and producers. Those include past collaborators Jason Halbert, Jesse Shatkin and 2017 Grammy producer of the year Greg Kurstin as well as new partners Mick Schultz (Usher, Rihanna, Jeremih), The Monarch (DJ Khaled, Meek Mill, Justin Bieber) and Nick Ruth (Carly Rae Jepsen), among others.
Also in the house Wednesday night was “Hamilton” mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda — Clarkson sang the musical’s tear-jerker “It’s Quiet Uptown” on “The Hamilton Mixtape” last year — incoming Warner Music CEO of recorded music Max Lousada, and Clarkson’s family. Her adorable three-year-old daughter River wore a gold-spangled dress that matched her mom’s, and leopard-spot noise-cancelling headphones during the performance.
Clarkson will perform”Love So Soft” and “Move You” (available as an instant grat download with pre-orders of the album), Friday morning on NBC’s “Today” show Citi Concert Series. She will also return to NBC next year in her new role as coach on the new season of “The Voice,” set to premiere in February 2018.
(Above: Clarkson with, from left, Atlantic Record Group co-chairmen Craig Kallman and Julie Greenwald, and incoming Warner Music Group CEO of Recorded Music Max Lousada. Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Atlantic Records)