Listening to Ashlee Simpson is like running a stop sign — almost everyone does it, but nobody wants to be caught. The girl best known for being exposed lip-synching on Saturday Night Live (and subsequently trying to cover it up with a horrendous jig) has spent much of the past two years trying to shake off the shadow of her squeaky-clean sister, Jessica Simpson. On her sophomore effort, “I Am Me,” she continues that self-exploration, but it is still obvious which Simpson got the better genes. The tracks on the album fumble with cliched middle-school lyrics and some are simply not worth anyone’s time. Perhaps it is because expectations post-“Autobiography” are abysmally low, but in the end, “I Am Me” turns out to be a surprisingly entertaining album with hooks that get stuck in your head, whether you want them to or not.
In Simpson’s first album “Autobiography,” she set out to differentiate herself from her sister, drawing on inspiration from rock, but despite dying her hair black, Simpson still managed to attract the same insecure adolescent fanbase. Simpson’s sound has evolved since that first album; no longer the long-lost cousin of Avril Lavigne and Hillary Duff, Simpson turns to more accomplished contemporary pop stars for inspiration.
“L.O.V.E.” channels Gwen Stefani’s ability to spell simple words (à la “Hollaback Girl”) with an annoyingly repetitious “L-O-L-O-L-O-V-E” chorus. It worked for Stefani because it was still novel then, and also because she’s just cooler. Remember Ashlee, no likes a copycat. “Burning Up,” a blatant ripoff of Britney Spears’ signature sexual panting, fails miserably. She sings “I-I-I-I’m burning … Uh-uh-uh-up for you,” and it sounds as if Simpson is unconvincingly faking it.
Although Simpson foolishly plagiarizes hit singles, “I Am Me” manages to include some original, uptempo tracks that feature melodic hooks. The sublimely energetic “Coming Back for More,” about going back to someone even though you know you shouldn’t, is the standout track on the album. With its universally relevant lyrics and infectious beat, it may just become the next “Since You’ve Been Gone.” The 80s-inspired, synth-infused “Dancing Alone” comes in at a close second, guaranteeing anyone who listens will, in fact, get up and dance alone.
In contrast, Simpson’s ballads are not standouts, but they are generally tolerable. The best ballad on the album is “Say Goodbye,” a simplistic song that sounds suspiciously like a slow dance at an awkward middle-school mixer (think Napolean Dynamite dancing to Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time”).
Despite the simplicity of the ballads, Simpson shows unexpected vocal versatility. On “L.O.V.E.,” Simpson’s manly, raspy voice fits in perfectly with the relentlessly forceful beat. Her low voice is strong enough to carry most of the upbeat songs on the album, but that’s just because those songs are heavily produced. Credit for this goes to producer John Shanks, who also plays keyboard and guitar, in addition to singing backup vocals. On ballads, where her voice is actually audible, Simpson picks technically unimpressive songs requiring little to no vocal range. This trick exposes Simpson’s lack of true talent — this may be one area where Simpson wishes she were more like her sister.
Simpson’s pathetic singing ability is only surpassed by her laughable lyrics — she co-wrote all eleven tracks on the album and often, it becomes painfully clear. “Beautifully Broken,” a reflection on the SNL debacle, begins with the verse “It seems like yesterday that my world fell from the sky/ It seems like yesterday I didn’t know how hard I could cry/ It feels like tomorrow I may not get by/ But I will try/ I will try.” Twelve-year-olds will surely relate to the poetic depth of Simpson’s maudlin heartache.
Simpson tries to mediate her lyrical ineptitude by taking one-liners and tediously looping them throughout the songs until they are entrenched in the listener’s consciousness. Unfortunately, the profundity of the lines never seems to rise above the “I didn’t steal your boyfriend” faire, found on the first single, “Boyfriend.”
Overall, “I Am Me” mirrors the life a seventh-grader in all its awkward glory. If this is the best that Simpson can produce, this 21-year-old has a lot of growing up to do.