Friday, June 22, 2018

album review: 'liberation' by christina aguilera

You know, I guess I shouldn't be that surprised that this record got so many votes so quickly on my schedule - it's her first record in six years, and she does have songs that are fondly remembered - but I'll admit I still am. And to explain why, we need to talk about Christina Aguilera's larger career and try to place some of it in context...

And even then, it's a struggle. Like many of her pop peers in the late 90s, Christina Aguilera started out in the Mickey Mouse club before transitioning into more adult pop tunes, notable because she actually had the pipes to back it up and become a serious player in pop and R&B. And while she was praised for that voice which helped her become a serious hit-maker around the turn of the millennium, get closer and the story becomes a lot more tangled. Part of this was inevitable as the early 2000s did a serious number on the careers of 90s pop divas, but ever since the beginning Aguilera's larger career seems strewn with weird choices and miscalculations. A strong debut is followed by an attempt to jump on the Latin craze of the time a year later with a record entirely in Spanish. Her 2002 album Stripped shows the dichotomies even more starkly, with pivots towards R&B and soul with 'Beautiful', rock with 'Fighter', and even hip-hop, none of which reflected any consistency. Her 2006 record Back To Basics showed a course correction towards a more flashy, almost old-fashioned brand of pop with tracks like 'Candyman' - even hiring P!nk cowriter Linda Perry to help. But that highlighted the unfortunate reality that while P!nk might not have the same register, her writing and edge had been consistently stronger since her breakthrough around the same time - P!nk knew exactly who she was and could build the cult of personality Aguilera struggled to assemble. Meanwhile despite artists like Lady Gaga highlighting Aguiilera as an inspiration, we got 2010's disastrous Bionic and the underwhelming Lotus in 2012 - at this point Christina Aguilera was becoming more well-known for her work on The Voice than as an artist in her own right, to the point where I'm surprised she hasn't leveraged that spotlight to push an album earlier, although she's continued to pop up on singles like 'Say Something' from A Great Big World and 'Feel This Moment' from Pitbull. But now we have a new album, with a producer list spanning from Kanye to Jon Bellion to Anderson .Paak, with guest stars from GoldLink and 2 Chainz to fellow pop diva Demi Lovato - and say what you will about Christina Aguilera, she doesn't play it safe, so what did we get with Liberation?

So here's the thing: when I first saw someone put Liberation on my schedule, I was genuinely surprised that there was enough interest, especially given her track record the past several years - hell, I just described it in detail. And I'll freely admit that given Christina Aguilera's reputation for taking risks, I had every reason to believe this would turn out at best underwhelming and at worst a total mess. And yet while there are some of those trademark scattershot twists on Liberation, I'd probably put this among her stronger records, definitely her best since Back To Basics and showing, if not a sense of real cohesion, at least a better understanding and realization of her strengths. Hell, considering how much P!nk's music has faded into passable but sanitized territory, Christina Aguilera going for broke arguably shows that their tables have been turned, because this is certainly a more interesting and likable record than I was expecting.

And a big part of this, to my astonishment, is Christina Aguilera herself, where I'll freely admit I've not really been a huge fan of her delivery but like Beyonce before her she's gotten considerably more expressive in the past decade, leaning paradoxically into more of her raw edge and vulnerable contours within her upper register to deliver a much more moving performance. I'll always give her credit for throwing herself into her music, but cuts like 'Sick Of Sittin' are the first time where her usual try-hard intensity feels earned and naturalistic, or even damn near soulful. It actually threw me off-guard when paired with Demi Lovato how much she outright outclasses Demi in fiery presence, almost reminiscent of when Usher upstaged Chris Brown on 'New Flame' in 2014! But this is where we do encounter the first point of frustration: vocal production. I've said this in the past how it seems like producers in the 2010s have utterly forgotten how to produce for women who can belt with huge range and volume in pop and R&B, and while to her credit Aguilera has learned to modulate and compensate, there are definitely points where she clips or blows out the upper end of the mix and that does get distracting. And again, the issue here most is that it's inconsistent: on the piano ballads 'Twice' and 'Unless It's With You', the mix gives her all the space in the world and in the latter case the welcome soulful backing of Lauren Evans, but against the tinny harpsichord, trap snares and slightly pitch-adjusted sample of Michael Jackson courtesy of Kanye on 'Maria' or the gurgling synths of 'Accelerate', she's a lot less lucky.

Granted, there's two parts to the conversation about songs like 'Accelerate' - the production... and then the guest stars. And look, Ty Dolla $ign put in some serious legwork and sounded great on KIDS SEE GHOSTS, but for as much as he's trying he just can't match Christina Aguilera's pipes, even with Autotune, and 2 Chainz's verse feels utterly inconsequential. And it somehow gets worse with 'Pipe' - very minimalist R&B keys muffled by the bass and close trap snares, very reminiscent of something SZA would use, and Christina Aguilera is stepping into a sensual lane where she's more convincing than I'd ever expect, especially with that Mariah-esque vocal arrangement... and then you get XDNA who with his unimpressive tenor who doesn't sound like he belongs in the same room with her, let alone the same song! I will say that GoldLink sounds a bit better against the flutes on 'Like I Do', but then he keeps flubbing rhymes and referencing her songs from nearly twenty years ago and it kind of kills the mood, at least for me. And while Demi Lovato fares better on 'Fall In Line', especially with that key change, I keep thinking that song might hit harder if the lumbering chains of the percussion was at a quicker tempo or the vocals didn't feel like they were either peaking or passing through unnecessary filters. Although, if we're being honest, what likely hurts that song's impact more is following it with 'Right Moves', following an explosive empowerment anthem with a drippy slice of trap-infused reggaeton where she's leaning into a woozy hookup where she references not being able to think straight... not the best of choices, that's all I'm saying. But the sequencing of Liberation is weird as a whole: following the intro track with a Sound Of Music interpolation leading into 'Maria', then once momentum is regained with 'Sick Of Sittin' which might be the best song on the album thanks to the smoky funk rock vibe courtesy of Anderson .Paak, and then instead of following up immediately with 'Fall In Line', you get an interlude of children talking about their dreams, which just feels heavy-handed and a major inhibitor to momentum. And that's before 'Accelerate' is buried in the final third of the track list after another interlude that doesn't transition well at all, it just feels out of place.

And now we have to talk about the lyrics... and look, it's well-known that subtlety is not Christina Aguilera's strong suit, and there are really more dud lines from her than are excusable. Hell, she even cribs the line 'let's Marvin Gaye and get it on' on 'Like I Do', which was awful when Charlie Puth and Meghan Trainor did that three years ago, and as great as she might sound on 'Pipe', she's got her fair share of cringe-worthy lines there too. All of that said, Christina Aguilera can still sell an overheated empowerment anthem better than damn near anyone in the industry, and while the free-spirited metaphor of 'Maria' was good, 'Sick Of Sittin' feels way more natural and has a ton of groove and intensity, with 'Fall In Line' not far behind. And there are elements I like in the relationship melodrama of 'Deserve' in how we self-sabotage relationships that we don't feel we've earned, or the tortured pain of 'Masochist' where the framing is blunt enough to not excuse or glorify any of it. And hell, sometimes that bluntness plays to her advantage: the hard, unapologetic vibe of the self-reflection on 'Twice' really clicked for me, and I liked how 'Unless It's With You' tilts into an acknowledgement of how her life and experiences don't line up with any direct romantic fantasy and how she doesn't want to see what they've built go down in flames, but she's going to take the chance regardless, the sort of romantic balladry that Christina Aguilera can earn at the ending of a record like this. 

So as such... yeah, I'll say it, I quite liked this. Yeah, it's scattered and inconsistent and it has its flaws, but with Christina Aguilera playing high stakes, high rewards, I'd say she lands more hits than she misses, delivering a record that feels her most mature as a performer with a fair few genuinely great songs. As such... yeah, this is worth it, I'm giving this a very light 7/10 and absolutely a recommendation if you're looking for an opportunity to get back onboard with Christina Aguilera a decade late, or if you were let down by P!nk's Beautiful Trauma last year, because I found this a fair bit more compelling. I'm not sure if she'll ever wind up landing a mainstream hit again, but with Liberation, she's proven she can deliver - definitely check this out.

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