ALBUM THROWBACK: KELLY CLARKSON | BREAKAWAY (2004)
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. Despite the odds 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 became the fastest-selling single of 2002. It shattered a decades-old record held by The Beatles for the most significant 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 she 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 following singles from her debut album "Thankful" dissipated without much noise.
The album kicks off with a spectacular firework: opening with the 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 significantly drop overall quality. 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 six and literally “hates [herself]” for her errors on track 10.
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. Its colourful “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 sit 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-favourite 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 angry 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 amid her emotional devastation. Though “Gone” – no, not “Since U Been Gone” – is another fan favourite, 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, “I Hate Myself For Losing You” and “Where Is Your Heart,” though Clarkson still sings them with the same conviction as any other track.
“Breakaway” is what it is — harmless pop with rock hooks. Strip away the pro-tools and have Clarkson writing her material, and I’m not sure what you’ll get. But such tactics are commonplace in the pop genre, and I find it hard to fault Clarkson for anything here. She has a great voice, and the songs are much better than more than half of the rest of the music said genre cranks out on an annual basis. So to say there’s little if anything, to hate about “Breakaway” rings as good an endorsement as any.