Christina Aguilera has been in a musical wilderness for going on a decade now. So underwhelming were her last two studio albums — the meager-selling, meager-charting “Bionic” (2010) and “Lotus” (2012) — that in recent years, she’s more widely known for her work on “The Voice” or her memorable guest appearance this year on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
So is Xtina back is the big question with new album “Liberation,” out last week. With its non-glam, super close-up cover image, is this an all-new Aguilera ready to compete with current pop acts? It’s getting strong reviews in some outlets.
But other early signs are not good. First single “Accelerate” failed to crack the U.S. Hot 100. And despite numerous collaborations from artists such as Demi Lovato, Shenseea, GoldLink and 2 Chainz, the music struggles despite her best efforts toward innovation.
The title track “Liberation” opens the album. Against a piano and string accompaniment, we hear the sounds of a child playing as Aguilera whispers, “Where are you/are you there/remember.” The title “Liberation” seems an odd choice for both the track and the album. If it is indeed liberation that Aguilera has in mind, it’s hard to see how the theme ties the album together in any coherent way.
Aguilera resorts to similar interludes and filler tracks throughout. To introduce her song “Maria,” she sings a 30-second snippet of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Maria” (“The Sound of Music”), which she titles “Searching for Maria.” It’s delivered beautifully in Aguilera’s whispered soprano and one almost wishes she would have included the entire song.
The song that follows, Aguilera’s own “Maria,” samples heavily from the Jackson 5’s “Maria.” Rather than liberation per se, the singer takes us on a reflective tour of what seems to be her early musical influences. Aguilera belts soulfully over the busy, repetitive musical landscape. Even with the interesting (if unoriginal) choice of samples, the final product is chaotic and messy.
Similar criticism could be made of Aguilera’s cringeworthy “Sick of Sittin’.” In a painful faux rock style, it’s a confusing tirade against fans, among other unnamed characters: “Just be thankful I gave you this/‘cause I don’t need it” and “I survived the dark ages/but the former trailblazer took out the knife and cut ties.” But the real offender is the chorus. Aguilera repeats the phrase “I’m sick of sittin’” ad nauseam with only slight variations. The song has all the vices of an earworm but none of the virtues. And she seems to have forgotten the most important thing about musical tirades — they should sound good.
Not every track is bad. Several are OK if forgettable. “Deserve,” a pleading, lovesick ballad, may find its way to radio. It’s most reminiscent of Aguilera’s classic sound.
“Fall In Line,” featuring Demi Lovato, is cool, powerful ballad addressed to young women. Encouraging women to speak their minds, the duo sings: “And maybe it’s never gonna change/but I got a mind to show my strength/and I got a right to speak my mind.” The only downside is the annoying electronic male voice in the bridge that symbolizes society’s expectations for women and recurs a second time at the end.
A couple songs stand out. The album’s lead single “Accelerate,” which features 2 Chainz and Ty Dolla $ign, experiments playfully with multiple hip-hop beats. It sounds almost as though three different songs were spliced together, yet it works surprisingly well. It’s one of the few songs worth a second listen.
“Like I Do” is another successful collaboration. Rapper GoldLink opens the track with a cooly flowing verse, full of short stops and starts and Aguilera gives the song a restrained, sensual energy.
But the few happy exceptions on the album are hardly enough to justify the rest. It’s just hard to listen to and in the age of Spotify, one wonders if many of the songs were intended to be heard at all.