Ashlee Simpson's first album was an Autobiography and her second is I Am Me -- clearly, she has a burning need to express herself, to explain who she is and why she is. Or, as she puts it on the title track, "I am me and won't change for anyone," which is a little ironic since the Ashlee of her 2005 sophomore effort is quite a bit different than the Ashlee of her 2004 debut. First off, there's her look. Gone are the dark, dyed locks; back is her natural blonde hair. Gone are the bright, happy colors and cute Ashlee depicted on the cover of Autobiography. In its place is a dark, shadowy black-and-white portrait of the singer on the cover, topped off by thick, gothic lettering. All of which makes Ashlee Simpson the first person in history to go goth by going blonde, and that's kind of the problem with I Am Me in a nutshell -- no matter how hard Simpson tries, no matter how foreboding the surface, beneath it all she's still light and frivolous. But that doesn't mean, by any stretch, that this is bubblegum music, since that term implies that this music is frothy, fun, and, most important, hooky, and I Am Me is none of those things. Ashlee, with her co-songwriters John Shanks and Kara DioGuardi (Shanks also produces), has had enough with the fun, deciding that in the wake of her massive success and massive humiliation via her lip-synced hoedown on Saturday Night Live, the time is ripe to prove Simpson is a serious artist. Which of course she isn't. She's a celebrity, a creature of pop culture who lives her life on MTV and in tabloids, and then writes songs about the whole ordeal -- so, if you have any passing knowledge of US Weekly, Star, VH1's Best Week Ever, or such pop culture-saturated blogs as Pinkisthenewblog, you will have a context for these songs. You'll know, for instance, that she broke up with fellow tween-pop starlet Ryan Cabrera and hooked up with That 70s Show's Wilmer Valderrama (aka Fez), prompting a feud with Lindsay Lohan. Armed with this, it's easy to hear "Boyfriend" -- as in "I didn't steal your..." -- as a retort to Lohan, to imagine the plaintive breakup ballads being sung to Cabrera, to think of Wilmer as the subject of her new love songs, and to picture her posse from MTV's Ashlee Simpson Show when she sings about her girls being total best friends forever.
All of this lends a bit of substance, albeit silly substance, to songs that are otherwise hollow, particularly because they lack the spark, canny commercialism, and cheerful vibe that distinguished Autobiography. Sure, that record was calculated, but the music was lively, energetic, and infectious; it was an ideal soundtrack for a fantasy high school. While some of the songs on I Am Me do skirt typical adolescent themes, Simpson no longer sounds like she's sorting things out; she sounds sullen and defiantly complacent, which becomes a lethal combination with the murky, muddy music. Avril is still a touchstone, partially because Lavigne's mall-punk is at the foundation of Ashlee's pop, but also because this is as somber as Avril's second album. Yet I Am Me is hipper, or at least plays younger, since it flirts with dance and, especially, the '80s revivalism of the new millennium. When she flirts with dance, she either references dance-pop godmother Madonna -- explicitly so, since "Burnin Up" borrows its title from Madge's first confession from the dancefloor -- or Gwen Stefani (on "L.O.V.E.," spelled out as if it were bananas). While Ashlee uncannily sounds like Courtney Love when she snarls out the title track, she's put behind the punk-pop affectations of Autobiography in favor of new new wave fetishism. It's not just that "Dancing Alone" has Echoplexed guitars like the Cure (she even name-drops "Just Like Heaven" on its chorus) -- the entire record has the bad robotic pulse and over-polished sheen of mediocre '80s productions. But unlike the second Kelly Osbourne record -- which shared a similar retro aesthetic, even if nobody bothered listening to it -- I Am Me sounds completely of its moment, particularly in how it twists recent pop culture trends into easily digestible, disposable Hot Topic lifestyle music. The problem is this album is presented with utter seriousness, as if her garden-variety changes in emotions and fashion were great revelations instead of being just what happens in adolescence. So, I Am Me winds up being too dark for high school yet too frivolous for college. Worst of all, unlike Autobiography, this simply is no rock & roll fun -- the songs aren't catchy, the attitude is dour, the productions are cold and distant, all highlighting the deficiencies in Ashlee Simpson as a singer, while burying the likeable persona she had on both her debut and her MTV show.