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Ex-'Idol' shares grief and grit

Despite the bad buzz that has surrounded her recently -- a delayed album, clashes with label boss Clive Davis, the firing of her manager, a canceled arena tour due to poor ticket sales -- the death of Kelly Clarkson, pop star, has been greatly exaggerated.

It is true that the 25-year-old Texan's angry new album, "My December" (out tomorrow), does not contain any of the sugar-rush slam dunks that gave its multiplatinum predecessor, 2004's "Breakaway," a two-year berth on the airwaves. But it also does not -- as Clarkson herself suggested in interviews that dropped names like the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen -- represent an enormous, hook-shunning leap in artistic and musical growth.

Instead , "My December" offers an appealing if uneven snapshot of a girl with a big voice and big emotions who's in transition, looking to express herself as she experiences the final four stages of grief over the death of a romantic relationship.

Clarkson tackled the first stage, denial, in her biggest hit to date, the irresistibly tenacious "Since U Been Gone" -- notably penned by someone else -- in which she was "so moving on" from a bad breakup.

There is no such forward progress on the 13 tracks here (plus a hidden closer).

The inaugural "American Idol" champ's rage and despair make for an album that can feel unremittingly bleak at times and righteously rocking at others. And even though the melodic pop element is muted, it is not absent in the work of Clarkson and her co-writers. (She employs 10 other songsmiths.)

After denial, of course, comes anger, and we already know that Clarkson is hopping mad from the jagged little lead single, "Never Again." That hell-hath- no-fury track, like many of the more guitar-oriented songs here, comes much closer, pleasingly so, to the polished angst and power chords of Alanis Morissette and Pat Benatar than it does to, say, "Gimme Shelter" or "Nebraska." Whoever the title character of "Judas" is, he may want to duck if he sees Clarkson coming, but he should be proud he inspired a track that so nicely straddles frothy electronics and metal-lite riffs.

Depression covers pretty much everything else, as Clarkson curls up to weep and moan early and often. The album's quite pretty centerpiece, "Sober," bobs along on waves of churning keyboards and acoustic guitars and features the set's second best vocal as the singer vulnerably unveils what an addicted mess she is, even after 90 days of romantic cold turkey.

She tries to get her baby back by bargaining on the desperate "Can I Have a Kiss " ( drunk dialers will recognize themselves in this one ) , and finally accepts that it's over and asks God himself for help on the album's one undeniable musical break from her previous records, "Irvine." Distant cellos, a wash of keyboards, and acoustic guitars accompany an achingly intimate vocal -- the album's best. For all the cathartic, clenched-fists firepower that has come before, "Irvine" feels like a real musical and personal epiphany.

Some of Clarkson's confessions are embarrassingly obvious and painfully redundant, and you won't find yourself singing the tunes right away, but the conviction she brings to this material is sincere. And who knows? Maybe now that she's gotten this off her chest, she'll find some peppy silver linings to go with her clouds next time.