Christina Aguilera is undisputedly one of the greatest voices of her generation. Her vocal ability is unquestionable. However, she’s a voice without a sound. She never quite found a signature sound to define her over the course of her seven albums. As a result, her catalog is a mish-mosh of sometimes-defiant experiments. Some have worked better (Stripped, Back To Basics) than others (Bionic, Lotus). Her new album, Liberation, falls in line with that trend of experimentation. Unfortunately it’s not for the better.
It’s not a good sign when the album’s first actual song starts at track 3 of 15. Christina has always insisted on an album introduction, which can work if executed correctly (like on Stripped). But at this point, what needed to be said that the music couldn’t? “Remember”, apparently. That’s the only word that’s spoken after a wasted 1:38 of instrumental during track one, “Liberation”. It’s immediately followed by track two, a timid, 0:25 second acapella of “Maria” from The Sound of Music. Why? That’s just one of many questions surrounding Liberation, including: Why title it Liberation? Why, after 6 years, were these the songs that made the cut? And, what was the objective? After many listens, the answers are still unclear.
Immediately following the two strange interludes, the album actually starts. Liberation’s true opening track is Kanye West’s first contribution, “Maria” (a reference to Aguilera’s middle name). Unfortunately, Kanye’s contributions to Liberation are about as tragic as he is these days. “Maria” is a hodgepodge of the keys from Aerosmith’s “Dream On” or No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak”, a harder “Drunk In Love” beat, and strings for good (bad?) measure. His other production, buzz single “Accelerate”, is catchy but worse than “Maria”, stifled further by Ty Dolla $ign & 2 Chainz. It feels as misguided as some of the worst moments on 2010’s Bionic. Except here, the missteps don’t even fit the album sonically.
Anderson .Paak’s disjointed post-soul/funk ”Sick Of Sittin” has his fingerprints all over the sound. Topically it would have made a great album opener. Plus, the clear shade towards her stint on The Voice is entertaining. Yet, the song pales in comparison to Paak’s stellar work on Dr. Dre’s Compton and his own Malibu. Equally, his other contribution “Like I Do” doesn’t properly encapsulate his nor Christina’s massive talent. Nor does the feature from Goldlink. It’d be much more palatable to hear Paak using his rough voice to blend with Christina’s over this beat.
Otherwise, songs like the reggae-flavored “Right Moves”, contemporary R&B of “Pipe”, and stuttering drops of “Deserve” aren’t inherently bad. They just feel like filler that’s not worth bragging about on an album with 11 songs.
Elsewhere there’s a very cute interlude “Dreamers” that precedes the middle-of-the-road Demi Lovato duet, “Fall In Line”. Little girls share their dreams and aspirations. The one-two punch is very timely based on the (much needed) changing social climate around women’s rights and equality. Yet, “Fall In Line” fails to truly ignite, despite two powerhouse vocalists and a well-placed key change. It’s a decent song and catchy, but musically it feels out of touch, even with Jon Bellion’s masterful ear handling production.
What Could Have Been
For all that’s bad, there are a few glimpses at what could have been. Liberation’s best songs are also its simplest. The ballad “Twice” instantly harkens back to the Stripped sound. The acapella introduction and piano-driven arrangement put Christina’s voice right where it should be: front and center. It’s searing, soulful, and mesmerizing. The similar “Unless It’s With You”, Liberation’s closer, is in a similar vein. Christina sings directly to her fiance, pledging her commitment. It’s raw, honest, authentic and understated.
Liberation’s true highlight though, is “Masochist”. It’s another ballad track that allows Christina to vocally soar. Propelled by 80’s synths and subtle percussion, the song is satisfying with every note, chord, and progression. Simply, it sticks, with a hook that is searing ear candy. This is the sonic direction that Aguilera should have focused on for the entire album.
It’s curious that after 6 years, Liberation is the album Christina Aguilera felt would propel her back to prominence. With a puzzling title, lack of direction, and over-the-top production, it notches her third miss in a row. The miss is magnified more by the fleeting moments of brilliance that hint at what Liberation could have been. Maybe it’s time to do a stripped back album, just the basics: Xtina and piano.