Pink is ambitious the way Madonna used to be: a mess of contradictions and complications with a knack for making those inner conflicts bolster her art. It took guts for her to follow her 2001 smash Missundaztood with 2003’s Try This — an uneven album that included punky collaborations with Rancid’s Tim Armstrong — when she could have coasted with more of the same Destiny’s Child-like grooves that first charmed radio on songs such as 2000’s “There You Go.”
Try This fell flat in record stores, but with I’m Not Dead Pink returns to reclaim her chart destiny. The album is proof that you don’t necessarily need to work with rock guys if you want to rock: Pink teams here with producer Max Martin — the Swedish studio dynamo behind countless Britney, Backstreet and ‘NSync hits — and B-level pop confectioner Billy Mann, but I’m Not Dead
swaggers with a cockiness that most dudes in bands can’t match. Whether she sings rock, pop, R&B or her usual combination of all three, the twenty-six-year-old Doylestown, Pennsylvania, native is belting more urgently and taking more risks than her pop-radio contemporaries.
Both Martin and Mann rise to the challenge with hooks and guitars that rarely relent. The loose musical blueprint here is Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” that Martin-produced marvel that proved the teen-pop shift away from synths and hip-hop beats to guitars and live drums could finally outgrow its disposable Avril Lavigne phase. Having watched lesser acts pillage her own rock-pop fusion, Pink comes out swinging both high and low. She sets the album’s proudly bitchy tone with the Martin cut “U + Ur Hand.” Claiming an uncharted space between today’s dance rock and yesterday’s hair metal, power chords and cowbell pound home the singer’s ball-busting riposte to an overly confident cocksmith on one of the album’s many savvy put-downs. Pink takes on “Stupid Girls” (“What happened to the dream of a girl president?/She’s dancing in the video next to 50 Cent”) and writes a scathing letter in “Dear Mr. President” (“You’ve come a long way from whiskey and cocaine!”), cooing righteous folk harmonies with Lilith Fair icons the Indigo Girls. Sporting the same defiant sass that yanked former 4 Non Blondes’ Linda Perry out of rock’s dustheap to write and produce “Get the Party Started,” Pink even duets with her dad, Jim Moore, on the old-school anti-war hidden track “I Have Seen the Rain.” Unhip? This populist iconoclast cares not. Only on Mann’s empty arena-rock “Runaway” does her fourth album seem anything less than Pink’s own.
For all her bravado, Pink can still cut herself down to size, pretending that she “wouldn’t trade a dollar for some sense” in “I Got Money Now.” While “Conversations With My 13-Year-Old Self” nurses wounds exposed on Missundaztood‘s “Family Portrait,” and “Leave Me Alone (I’m Lonely)” suggests a mood-swinging Strokes mash-up, “‘Cuz I Can” flaunts one of the disc’s goofiest, most endearing bits: Over Martin’s glam-rock stomp, Pink drops an irreverent but apropos chorus of “Ice cream, ice cream, we all want ice cream,” savagely satirizing her own aspirations. Like Courtney Love, this loose cannon wants to be the girl with the most cake. Unlike Love, Pink knows how to hold on to it.