Don't call it a comeback -- and don't call it a retreat, either. Actually, it's hard to know what to call A Thousand Different Ways, Clay Aiken's second proper album, endlessly delayed and long-awaited, at least by the hoards of fans enthusiastically calling themselves Claymates, of which there are many. There were enough Claymates to make the American Idol season two runner-up one of the two biggest stars the show has produced to date -- the other, of course, being Kelly Clarkson -- propelling his debut album, Measure of a Man, to number one upon its 2003 release. Chart success means a lot, particularly for an American Idol, and it would seem that blockbuster success would embolden a pop star. That certainly was the case with Kelly Clarkson, who came on strong with her second album, forever banishing the specter of AmIdol as she swaggered through the irresistible "Since U Been Gone." Given Kelly's example, it would seem that Clay could have come out swinging with A Thousand Different Ways and do something interesting, but Aiken had a rough year leading up to the release of his sophomore set, all having to do with rumors that he may be gay. There wasn't one rumor; there were many, some accompanied by photos (which were dissected by his fans as if they were the Zapruder film), some accompanied by salacious stories, most notoriously an ex-Marine who appeared on Howard Stern telling very, very salacious stories, filled with graphic details. It was an ugly furor, stoked by gossip mongers on the Internet who delighted in each new twist, and Aiken handed it badly, blustering denials and then going into hiding, letting the Claymates fight the battle for him -- which only heightened the gossip, naturally. Normally, such gossip would be a sideshow to the main album, but the gossip started affecting the album itself, pushing it back by months and possibly shaping its contents, since A Thousand Different Ways is the furthest thing from a risk: it's an album made directly for those fans who stuck by him during the dark times. It makes Measure of a Man, with its songs written by Aldo Nova and soaring kitsch like the unintentionally creepy "Invisible," seem the epitome of daring.
This record has a couple of new made-to-order tunes for Clay, but for the most part it consists of songs you know by heart, equal parts popular standards and adult contemporary schlock. Clay sings Richard Marx's "Right Here Waiting," does the billionth version of Badfinger's "Without You," copies Paul Young's take on Hall & Oates' "Every Time You Go Away," gallantly tries to give Bryan Adams' "Everything I Do (I Do It for You)" some momentum, does a really nice job with Dolly Parton's "Here You Come Again" (the closest thing to a genuine surprise here), rivals Celine Dion on "Because You Loved Me," is as mawkish as Foreigner on "I Want to Know What Love Is," stumbles through Mr. Mister's "Broken Wings," and naturally does a pretty good job with Elton John's "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word." The cumulative effect of all these covers plus three undistinguished new songs is like a season of American Idol in microcosm: it's uncannily like listening to outtakes from the show. And it's the first album from any American Idol contestant to sound exactly how they did on the show. Justin Guarini, George Huff, Josh Gracin, and even William Hung sound different on record than they did on the show -- but not Clay, one of the few genuine superstars from the show. He sounds exactly how you remember him from TV, which only means that he must have been scared that he'd lose those legions of fans he won way back then. And A Thousand Different Ways will satisfy those fans -- but the truth is, they probably would have stuck with him anyway, even if he did something more interesting than this, which is as predictable and slick as a latter-day Barry Manilow album. At least it is better sung than a recent Barry album, and Clay's bizarre gossip-page psychodrama does lend his music a certain fascination. After all, how can somebody release an album this safe and then wrap it up in a photo of himself where he adopts k.d. lang's haircut from Ingénue? Only Clay, and that's why he has Claymates -- plus plenty of other pop culture junkies -- following his every move.