June 14, 2018
The most striking track on Christina Aguilera’s eighth album is called Fall in Line. On the surface, the collaboration with the similarly leather-lunged Demi Lovato looks like one of her trademark anthems of self-empowerment rebooted for the age of woke pop: Beautiful or The Voice Within given a #MeToo makeover, complete with an introduction that features a collage of little girls’ voices and a climax with Aguilera doing her nut in time-honoured, lung-busting, ad-lib-heavy style. But it’s more interesting than that.
Christina Aguilera: Liberation review – #MeToo makeover hits high and low notes
For one thing, the music is more engaging than the standard soaring piano ballad to which she’s previously set this sort of thing. The rhythm proceeds at a funereal pace, the Feeling Good-esque orchestration is underpinned by a gloomy electronic bass pulse, the parody of hip-hop misogyny – in slowed-down, screwed style – is so accurate that you could easily miss its satirical intent. For another, the lyrics avoid cliche and carry the authentic tang of hard-won experience. Aguilera and Lovato alike sing them like they mean them: “All the youth in the world,” warns one line, “will not save you from growing older.”
Dire presentiments about ageing are an odd thing to hear coming from someone still in her 30s, but in pop terms, Aguilera is quite the veteran. It’s six years since she last released an album and 12 since she last had a big hit, with millions of fans bailing out around 2010’s Bi-On-Ic, which found her duetting with Peaches and collaborating with Le Tigre and MIA. She’s hardly been out of the public eye. She’s acted in country soap opera Nashville, but the six years she spent as a coach on the US version of The Voice don’t sound as if they ended terribly well: “It’s good pay but it’s labouring,” she roars on a song called Sick of Sittin’, “I can’t live with these chains on me.”
There’s an argument that joining a reality TV talent show then complaining that it’s repetitious and limiting is not unlike taking a job in a garage and then complaining about people wanting to buy petrol from you, but nevertheless, the urge to escape the world of light entertainment has given Aguilera a fresh sense of purpose. Liberation’s first single, Accelerate, was a Kanye West production cut from the same peculiar, episodic cloth as his album The Life of Pablo. An intro featuring a jarring drum loop is suddenly replaced by a chaotic melange of synths and voices, among which Ty Dolla $ign distinguishes himself by sounding like a man about to die of emphysema.
Maria, West’s other contribution, is less weird and disjointed, although it does arrive preceded by a lengthy orchestral intro and Aguilera singing The Sound of Music’s How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? a capella. Maria itself is a return to the sound of Late Registration, sped-up soul samples weaving around an intricate harpsichord and string arrangement. It’s followed by Sick of Sittin’ – Aguilera’s complaints aside, it’s a fantastic Anderson.Paak collaboration that turns a sample of Swedish guitarist Janne Schaffer into sweaty funk-rock. Aguilera is perfectly equipped to handle this swing in musical direction. Modern R&B suits her voice, forcing her to reign in the histrionic excesses a little and, on Sick of Sittin’, revealing a gutsy blues wail.

If the whole album was like that, it would be an unqualified success. But it isn’t. After a potent start, Liberation tails off. Part of the problem is a lack of strong material. Dancehall MC Shenseea does her best on Right Moves, but the backing’s reggae infusion is pallid. Pipe is boilerplate Drake; the most interesting thing about Like I Do is how its hook echoes Maroon 5’s Moves Like Jagger, the biggest hit Aguilera’s been involved with in years. By the album’s conclusion, Aguilera has retreated to familiarity, belting out big MOR ballads. You listen to them and wonder about the album’s abandoned sessions with Pharrell Williams. Did they really produce nothing that might have constituted an improvement on Unless It’s With You, a song that sounds like the kind of thing that gets played as a first dance at a footballer’s wedding?
Liberation sounds like it suffered a crisis of confidence midway through, as if Aguilera was beset by doubts at her ability to pull off a whole album of modern R&B. A shame, not least because her boldness in reinventing herself was always one of her most impressive facets. Her most successful period saw her quickly shift from Disney-approved poppet to dressing like a porn star to dabbling kitschily in 30s and 40s jazz. This time, the reinvention feels half-finished: more frustration than liberation.
What Alexis listened to this week
No track sums up the psychedelic invention of Kid Cudi/Kanye West’s new album like Fire, a track that unexpectedly samples Napoleon XIV’s 1966 novelty hit They’re Coming to Take Me Away to startling effect.
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