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. Ashlee, with her co-songwriters John Shanks and Kara DioGuardi (Shanks also produces), has had enough with the fun, deciding that the time is ripe to prove Simpson is a serious artist. But she's really 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 allads 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.
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. 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
ew wave fetishism. And unlike the second Kelly Osbourne record -- which shared a similar retro aesthetic -- 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, presented with utter seriousness, as if her garden-variety changes in emotions and fashion were great revelations instead of just being what happens in adolescence. [A Japanese version included bonus tracks.] ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi