Photographer: Dove Shore.
Once Katharine McPhee's AAA makeover of 2010 didn't catch, she turned her attention elsewhere -- television, to be specific. Of all the American Idol finalists, she was the only one savvy enough to realize much of her appeal rested upon the television aspect of her on-camera charm, so she turned to TV after Unbroken faded, first gaining traction on the gleefully trashy music-melodrama Smash, then establishing her dramatic bona fides in the 2014 thriller Scorpion. These two series were enough to sustain her stardom, perhaps even elevate it, and open the door for a pop comeback in the form of Hysteria, an album delivered half a decade after Unbroken. Much fizzier and fresher than its predecessor, even with the occasional ballads taken into consideration, Hysteria nevertheless never comes close to mirroring the exuberance of its title. Frivolity isn't McPhee's thing. Even when she's having fun, she's composed, which is why she fares better on Hysteria than she does on her post-Idol 2007 debut, a record that wanted to paint her as a carefree diva. Hysteria doesn't make the same mistake. Everybody involved in its production -- Isabella Summers, a key collaborator for Florence + the Machine, and Smith Carlson are the executive producers, collaborating with McPhee and finding space for Ryan Tedder and Drew Pearson, among others -- is aware Kat's powerhouse vocals aren't necessarily malleable, so her singing is channeled into tracks that either resemble a Florence without art, an Adele without soul, or a Leona Lewis with grit. This formula usually works best when tempos are sprightly -- the Luther Vandross-sampling "Lick My Lips" is a neo-disco delight, "Only One" also conjures a bit of yacht-soul flair, while melodramas like "Love Strikes" drag -- but even when Hysteria flirts with the middlebrow, there's a sense that McPhee and her team understand the middle of the road is where she belongs. She's not a trendsetter, she's not an innovator, she surfs the waves of the mainstream and on Hysteria, she does so with grace. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine