Likes: Maria, Sick of Sittin', Twice, Unless It's with You
Overall: Veers from intriguing to mediocre, but hints at future artistic revitalization
These days, the average artist drops a new album every two years. This doesn't leave much room for creative growth and contemplation, especially if one is touring and promoting the entire period between. The general end result is an array of rushed and undercooked projects that won't have a lasting impact. In that respect, Christina Aguilera is one of many acts who benefitted from starting a career in the late 1990's and early 2000's. Once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away, it was standard for releases to be 3-4 years apart. The one occasion Aguilera deviated from this, the easily forgettable Lotus (2012) came. Now, after exceeding her usual interval by almost double, she's returned with Liberation. However, it doesn't sound like a lengthy hiatus made much of a difference this turn. When you listen to it, you may ask, "This is all after six years?"
Liberation's packaging and opening numbers make promises it can't keep. A bare-faced, wet-haired Aguilera dons the cover. The lead track is a brief, but breathtaking piano and strings instrumental. Our star chanteuse calls, "Where are you? Are you there? Remember?," as a baby laughs in the background. This segues into "Searching for Maria," an interlude where Aguilera wistfully sings the eponymous tune from The Sound of Music (a favorite of hers). Her voice echoes through to "Maria," which samples the ever-haunting 1972 Michael Jackson song of the same title. Jackson's distressed pleas to a love lost lay the stage for her to discuss losing herself. The repeat mentions of Maria are a reference to her middle name; it's how she chooses to represent her once unsullied spirit. She bewails "How was I supposed to know that it would cost my soul? And how am I supposed to face this lonely life I've created?...Was too young to know the difference...I believe my own lies...I'm facing the mirror...Why don't I see her? I just need to see ya', Maria...Don't you keep on runnin' from me." It's a very compelling first six minutes. You're prepared and eager to learn more about her feelings of displacement. Are they personally or professionally based, or both? What is she 'liberating' herself from? Will the album's conclusion be a cliffhanger, or will it reveal that she found Maria? None of these questions are answered to a significant extent. None. It's like being all packed up and ready to go to Disneyland, but your dad never arrives to pick you up.
The rock/soul, Woodstock-ish "Sick of Sittin'" implies her exasperation with an industry driven by money versus art, but the active word here is "implies." What it puts forth would be sufficient if its allusions were expounded on in future songs, but alas, they are not. Next is "Dreamers," a prelude to the single "Fall in Line" with Demi Lovato. Little girls tell what they want to be when they grow up, and assert a resolute position of strength. The duet insists to young ones they don't have to live within rigid, gender-biased paradigms. Though it has a valuable message, it isn't distinctly personal. It's also not very enthralling, despite it being dispensed by two powerhouses known for their emotive performances.
It's no secret that Aguilera's once honeyed texture and clarity is now very brittle and coarse. Years of poor technique and her affinity for growling while belting are the assumed culprits. Rather than erode her instrument further and grate listeners' ears by pressing her current limitations, she judiciously operates with what she has. She allows her middle and lower range to carry her, and selectively uses gruff for affect. Her trademark feathery and whistle-like notations are still around. The "money" moments are M.I.A.; sorry to disappoint.
Fighters (the name of Aguilera's fan-base) and other Xtina supporters like myself (a moniker birthed during the 2002 Stripped era) have had a rough and frustrating decade. This incisive visionary has fallen down an uninspired rabbit hole of recycled topics, conforming styles and underdeveloped themes. There's hope for Alice yet, though. Liberation's R&B-threaded pop and vintage samples (which also includes Janne Schaffer's "No Registration") are redolent of Aguilera's debut and 2006's Back to Basics. "This album is super important to me because it’s [about] reflecting and all about getting back to that little girl who just wants to sing for all the right reasons...back to the love, and the purity of song and voice," she said in a commentary. She may not have told us much about her quest for Maria, but the fact she's on the prowl shows she's ready to get herself outta' that hole. We'll be on the other side primed to give her a hand.
Some of Liberation's songwriters and producers are Aguilera, Kanye West ("Maria," "Accelerate"), Anderson Paak ("Sick of Sittin," "Like I Do"), Che Pope ("Maria," "Right Moves," "Accelerate," "Pipe"), and Julia Michaels ("Right Moves," "Deserve").