Kellie Pickler is at an important crossroads.
On her self-titled second album, she attempts to build on what must be an unexpectedly successful stay in Nashville. As a finalist on American Idol in 2006, she gained notable exposure, but the reality-show sweepstakes rarely produces significant long-term returns. After a pair of CMA nominations and sales of over 800,000 copies of her debut disc Small Town Girl, Pickler now faces a test. In a fickle marketplace where Carrie Underwood is the current queen of the country kingdom and Taylor Swift is its reigning princess, Pickler must discover her place. It’s not a matter of competition with the girl squad, but rather a need for her to establish an identity distinct from the other heroines of mainstream country music.
But although her second disc has some nice moments, its main problem is that Kellie Pickler the person sometimes struggles to translate into Kellie Pickler the singer. Some of the ten tracks here still don’t reveal her real identity, although it’s ever-present in every interview and media campaign that have played as much a part in her career as the actual music. Ironic, given that the supposed theme of the album is expressed in its title: Kellie Pickler. And the production, courtesy of Chris Lindsey, eschews clarity at certain junctures in favor of making big, bold statements. The prominence of drums and electric guitars is often used to hide the utter lack of music personality in the artist, but as we’ve learned in the last years, Pickler always has something to say. She’s not quite able to express that inescapable truth at key moments here due to the musical mix and a handful of innocuous tunes.
Pickler is best served when she’s singing full-hilt on a heartbreak ballad or tearing into a sassy song with just the right amount of energy, extremes that support her larger-than-life personality. She’s surprisingly adept when devoting herself to a tormented slow song. “Didn’t You Know How Much I Loved You” is a powerful proclamation that simmers in the chorus, and it’s just the type of a affecting song that plays well to her penchant for depths-of-despair wailing. Thankfully, it’s not the annoying screeching that plagues some major-label releases, and Pickler keeps it from becoming too overdramatic. “One Last Time” also builds in intensity at just the right turns, exhibiting that she can be a reliable country artist when working with songs worthy of her gifts. Pickler channels torch-and-twang singers like Lorrie Morgan when she belts out a depressing ballad, but maintains a modicum of strength that separates them from the pathetic line of losing-in-love songs that run rampant throughout Nashville.
Again, strength is a significant component that defines the best parts of Pickler’s repertoire. It’s a quality that galvanizes the tensions introduced in the better songs, particularly the pop-rock, uptempo songs. These moments include Pickler’s co-writing collaboration with BFF Taylor Swift, “The Best Days of Your Life.” Although it’s not remotely country (and the beginning moments are disconcerting with only Pickler’s vocal and a series of odd violin notes) , it flickers with a spark that fits nicely with Pickler’s character. Same goes for “Rocks Instead of Rice”, a song in the vein of so many revenge-minded refrains that have overpopulated country music in recent years.
For all her personality, though, Pickler fails to infuse it on tracks that stray from the formula. She manages to handle aggressive, attitude-filled anthems or drop-to-your-knees, dramatic ballads, but when the ideas are more complex, she sounds uncertain and uncomfortable. Where she tends to lose focus is on songs such as “I’m Your Woman” and “Makin’ Me Fall in Love Again”, two falling-in-love tracks that show very faint flashes of what makes Pickler a distinctive artist. And on the emotional “Somebody to Love Me”or the closer “Going Out in Style”, she doesn’t sound quite as invested, a cause that’s not helped by their average lyrical content. Quite simply, Kellie Pickler thrives on drama in her music. When there’s little conflict, there’s little commitment in her voice. And these songs in particular fall flat when compared to the moments when her abilities match the material.
First single “Don’t You Know You’re Beautiful” serves its purpose well, and although it speaks to the youth audience she targets, her genuine delivery is infectious and the message is relatable. The song itself is a well-written anthem of empowerment for women, even though it hedges its bets with a rather blank chorus. The idea is a bit recycled, but a shot of energy by Pickler does just save the song. Elsewhere, “Lucky Boy”, with its brooding bridge and moody instrumentation, tempts Pickler into a coy delivery that plays up her personality well. Her voice isn’t an A-level gift yet, and is often lost in the mix of the production, but it’s not a total liability here.
Kellie Pickler is fairly easy listening for the most part, but for a young woman equipped with the spirited traits that mainstream country music seems to adore, she shows these characteristics more sparingly than would serve her best interests. She appears to have made an earnest attempt at encompassing a full range of emotions and life experiences on this disc, and the potential still exists to make a worthy package. The jury’s still out on whether Pickler will be a prime contender in the country music parade, and on this album she leaves more questions than answers.