Christina Aguilera, “Liberation”
Stripped, Christina Aguilera’s 2002 album, sought to make a clean break from her debut’s squeaky teen-idol gleam. Aguilera clearly aspired to get somewhere beyond the corner “Genie in a Bottle” had backed her into, lumped in with the thin assembly line of nü-bubblegum churned out by artists like Jessica Simpson and Mandy Moore. But while Stripped emphatically knew that Christina did not want to be Britney Spears, it seemed entirely unsure of what she should be instead. Careening gracelessly from the delicate balladry of “Beautiful” to the forced edginess of “Dirrty,” it was an album stuffed with ideas but in search of an identity.
Every record Aguilera has released since has been equally confused, to diminishing returns; 2012’s Lotus landed with a thud, leaving fans and critics unmoved. Coasting on Maroon 5 features (“Moves Like Jagger”) and Voice TV money, Aguilera ably slipped into late-career complacency. It was more than a little dispiriting to watch her grip on pop all but disintegrate while less talented artists filled the void left behind.
Liberation, her latest album, resurrects Xtina’s considerable presence as a vocalist, though her attempts at navigating the modern pop landscape still verge on aimless. Despite her stylistic choices being seemingly arbitrary, Liberation is curiously confident; she seems to relish her scattershot approach, sounding more comfortable than ever before.
All that confidence hasn’t translated into consistency. “Sick of Sittin’” (channeling the grating Inspirational Poster spunk she has been chasing since “Fighter”) is delivered with heaps of attitude but little originality, a lifeless bowling alley retread of Lemonade’s blistering collaboration between Beyoncé and Jack White. The junior high poetry of closing ballad “Unless It’s with You” falls flat where it wants to soar. “Right Moves,” pleasant though it is, barely rises above the ziplocked reggae pop of Sting and Shaggy’s recent misguided collaboration.
Liberation finds its footing when Aguilera loosens up a bit. The Kanye West–produced “Accelerate” never hits the heights you hope it will, but it’s got a sneaky, muted charm. “Deserve,” “Maria,” and the Demi Lovato–assisted “Fall in Line” are powerful reminders that Aguilera remains a remarkably gifted vocalist. These moments reaffirm her ability to craft strong—and even transcendent—pop music. But nearly two decades into her career, Christina still hasn’t figured out how to get out of her own way.