By Sean Maunier on June 28, 2018
With five Grammys, spots on several “most influential” lists, and 50 million worldwide record sales, Christina Aguilera has very little to prove to anyone. There is no immediately obvious reason the pop icon decided to release a new record, and, six years after her last outing, this one almost comes as a surprise. It may be that in the intervening time, which encompassed six seasons as a coach on The Voice, she simply wanted to find out where she would now fit in the kaleidescopic pop landscape that she had been largely absent from.
The place she carves out on Liberation (★★½) is heavily indebted to hip-hop and R&B. She has long cited these genres as influences, and has borrowed from them on many occasions. Here, she brings them into the foreground. The album features heavyweights like Kanye West and Anderson Paak, who each produced two tracks, and a collaboration with 2 Chainz and Ty Dolla Sign on the lead single “Accelerate.”
Aguilera’s vision, or at least an approximation of it, is most strongly realized in the album’s singles. When “Accelerate” dropped in May, it received a highly mixed reception, but there was no disputing that this was a very weird-sounding track. Its lyrics and subtle crooning echo her early hit “Dirrrty,” but otherwise, the chatty vocals, excessive production and the hand-off to 2 Chainz are a notable departure from what we are used to hearing from her.
“Twice” is a safer, more formulaic track, putting the spotlight entirely on Aguilera, who belts out a pop ballad over only a piano and chorus. The high point of Liberation, though, comes with feminist power anthem “Fall in Line,” a song full of frustration, anger and a long-suppressed sense of defiance. Although the song was written before the #MeToo movement took off, it landed in the middle of it and was readily adopted as an anthem. Demi Lovato almost manages to hold her own on the track, but when the two come together for a soaring duet on the final chorus, her voice hardly registers.
It is no coincidence that the most memorable moments of the album are the two singles that showcase Aguilera’s full vocal power. Her voice has always been distinct and memorable, and when it does get to shine on Liberation, it seems even stronger than it has in the past. Unfortunately, much of the album seems to treat her as a side-piece rather than the main event.
Her producers seem unsure of how to make the most of her talent, which might be most clear on “Maria,” one of the biggest mixed bags of the album. Aguilera brings characteristically flawless vocals to a reflective, introspective song about the interplay between her personal and professional lives. After a whispery intro, she comes in alongside high-pitched backing vocals, a string section, thumping beat, and a harpsichord. It’s an unusual combination that pulls the track in several different directions at once and the narrative is mostly lost. Adding to the issue are lyrics that are often awkward and occasionally downright cringeworthy — a problem elsewhere, with “Pipe” being the worst offender on the album.
Liberation is a highly experimental album, and if nothing else it’s an encouraging sign that even at the top of the pyramid, Aguilera still has things to try and room to grow. There is enough in the album to suggest that a spectacular pop rebirth might still be on the way, but it’s unfortunate that her return to recording is a bit of a false start. She clearly knows where her strengths lie and has a handle on the direction she wants to move in, but through most of the album she appears unable to fully bring the two together.
It’s hard to escape the thought that the album would have been improved with less clutter and a tighter focus, but it has so many moving parts that it is hard to know what would have been best left on the cutting room floor. Aside from a handful of moments of clarity, the final product is scattered and tonally confused. If the album was meant to be a bold, multifaceted new direction for the pop diva, its main problem might be that it contains so many facets, she gets lost among them.
Liberation is available now to buy on Amazon and iTunes, and on streaming services.