If Kim Petras ever decides to detour from music into academia, she could teach a master class on the art of rebooting your public narrative. At age 16, the German singer-songwriter made headline news around the world as one of the youngest people ever to undergo gender-reassignment surgery. Now 26, Petras has completed another successful transition, from front-page name to credible recording artist – and she did it without the benefit of reality TV.
She’s been putting out a steady stream of singles since 2017, becoming a fixture on Spotify’s custom playlists in the process. After two years of teasers, including one EP, she’s finally unveiled “Clarity,” her first full-length release. Petras recorded the 12-track project with production and songwriting assistance from her longtime collaborator Dr. Luke (Katy Perry, Kelly Clarkson, Pink and, more controversially, Kesha), and her label, BunHead, rolled it out with an unusual strategy. Since April 25, they’ve released nine of its tracks as singles, streaming a new one every seven days, ahead of the project’s June 27 street date.
Do her songs hold up over the course of a full-length release? The simple answer: yes. “Clarity” pushes sturdy pop songcraft as successfully as any pop release you’re likely to hear this year. It rivals the giant leap for womankind that Lorde took from her 2013 debut EP “The Love Club” to her full-length debut “Pure Heroine” some six months later.
Whether that’s a good thing will depend on whether you prefer your pop with a spoonful of sugar or a dash of salt. While “Pure Heroine” found Lorde polishing her sound but still pushing the edgy-pop agenda of her EP, Petras fully embraces pop convention on “Clarity.” She’s traded the “I don’t give an F” aesthetic of her “Turn Off the Light, Vol. 1” EP (which came out last October and was an equally massive leap from the mainstream perch of Petras’s early singles) for artistry that’s far more concerned with commercial appeal.
In a way, it works. “Clarity” might be the best-constructed collection of R&B-inflected pop music by a female European singer since Robyn’s “Robyn Is Here” in 1995. Like the future Swedish cult superstar, Petras has mastered idiomatic English and uses and manipulates the language with as much finesse as a native speaker.
“Clarity” is a concise 39:13, which means none of its dozen tracks wear out their welcome; Petras keeps things short, sweet, and fairly simple. She doesn’t dwell on the droopy balladry that drags down many modern pop releases. When the tempo finally slows way down on “Broken,” six songs in, she’s dropping sass like “Hope you happy with your new bitch.” Clearly she’s not living down to the title.
But the “Robyn Is Here” connection is a double-edged sword. “Clarity” is appealing and accessible, like its 24-year-old Europop predecessor, but it often feels a bit stuck in the 1990s and early 2000s. The over-reliance on retro means there’s little here that we haven’t heard before. Whether she’s ripping a page from Mariah Carey’s sing-it-like-a-rapper stylebook on “Broken,” rolling down the sunroof on the finger-snapping title track, or casually confirming her purchasing power on the swaggering “Meet the Parents,” she seems blissfully unaware that a white girl singing black-ish songs has been done to death in America this century, from Christina Aguilera on “Stripped” to Miley Cyrus on “Bangerz” to Ariana Grande on “Thank U, Next.”
The musical scheme does make for some thrilling moments – the 1992-esque rock guitar strumming that bookends the low-rise hip hop of “Blow It All” makes for an offbeat mishmash of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” proportions – but “Clarity” feels most natural and fresh when Petras drops the arch African-Americanisms and swerves outside of the R&B lane. The booming electro bass and happy-hour vibe of “Sweet Spot” would have fit right in on Kylie Minogue’s 2000 comeback album “Light Years,” and “Personal Hell” fuses elements of glam rock and new wave into its shimmery pop mix. Later, on “Do Me,” she merges dark, minor-key verses into a let-the-sunshine-in chorus with all the panache of Taylor Swift.
Dr. Luke knows his way around a pop hit, and his tight, deliberate production on “Clarity” strengthens Petras’s bid for international domination. (The echo effect at the end of the first two verses of “Another One,” where the music sings back-up, is particularly genius.) Her up-with-positivity lyrics and one-woman-choir vocals on the album-closing “Shinin’” prove she’s ready for it.
The roll-out strategy wouldn’t have worked if they hadn’t crafted 12 single-caliber tracks, but here’s the downside of heightened pop potential: In the process of finding her “Clarity,” Petras has sacrificed too much of her personality. Could this be the same woman who invited Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, to rap, Vincent Price-on-“Thriller”-style, on her EP’s title track?
“Clarity” could be subtitled “How to Be a Modern Pop Diva.” On a musical level, most of it works, but it’s missing the element of surprise, the “Who is that?” jolt that “Turn Out the Light, Vol. 1” sparked with its shameless European-ness. The EP was atmospheric head music you could dance to. At times it sounded like a nod to “Blackout”-era Britney Spears (a very good thing), and at other times, it could have passed for Daft Punk fronted by a mystery woman.
There are traces of the EP’s moody dance queen in the emotional crescendo of “Icy,” the project’s emphasis track, but over the course of “Clarity,” Petras and Luke have smoothed away too much of her edge. “Turn Out the Light, Vol. 2” is due in October. Hopefully, the pair will tone down the pop polish and turn on the weird again.