Current single 'Never Again' is a useful indicator of where Clarkson's head is at. Over ringing guitar riffs and frantic, Queens of the Stone Age-style drums, the one-time American Idol hisses sub-Alanis Morissette lyrics about being chewed up and spat out by, well, a guy who sounds like a right nasty bastard. “I hope the ring you gave her turns her fingers green,” she seethes, in one of several lines that sound like lyrical offcuts from Morissette's Jagged Little Pill rage-fest 'You Oughta Know'. Song after song that follow – the pounding, insistent 'One Minute', the bludgeoning, Garbage-esque 'Hole', the bluesy Janis Joplin tribute 'Yeah' – are equally turgid and uncompromising. Only the strident, swaggering 'Judas' gives Clarkson the sort of all-consuming chorus that her herculean pipes really deserve.
And yet, there are moments of unexpected beauty to counteract My December's overwhelming musical gruffness. 'Sober', a hopeful ballad on which Clarkson shows off the full might of her voice, achieves a grace that much of the album is lacking, while closing track 'Irvine', with its delicate acoustic guitar arpeggios and languidly sexy vocal, proves, once and for all, that Clarkson can do subtle. After enduring the 45 minutes of musical chest-beating that precedes it, it's a revelation akin to finding out, at the end of a porn movie, that the busty pin-up you've been ogling for the last two hours is actually a trick-playing tranny.
Ultimately, My December is a bitter pill to swallow from Clarkson. It's hard to accept that a singer who went supernova after releasing an album filled with more hooks than an out-of-town angling superstore chose – well, fought tooth and nail, to be precise – to make an album this devoid of stand-out pop moments. Rumour has it that label honcho Clive Davis offered her $10 million to scrap five of the more brutal songs from My December and replace them with catchier, more radio-friendly contributions from professional songwriters. You can see his point: there's nothing here that seems capable of taking over the airwaves the way 'Since U Been Gone', 'Behind These Hazel Eyes' or even 'Miss Independent' did. Nevertheless, there's a pleasing paradox in knowing that the album that's most baffled the music industry this year hasn't come from a bunch of punky upstarts from an underprivileged LA suburb, nor from an avant-garde East End electronica outfit, but from a Texan former cocktail actress who made her name on a reality TV show. That's postmodernism for y'all, we guess.