Christina Aguilera’s ‘Liberation': A Return to Soul + Monster Ballads (REVIEW)
"At the end of the day, I am a soul singer,” Christina Aguilera told Billboard in May. “When you strip back the words 'pop star' and the many things that I've done, singing soulfully is where my core, my root and my heart really is.”
Enter Liberation, the diva’s first album in nearly six years — and the first project to properly jive with Aguilera’s classically gifted, Etta James-lovin’ psyche in more than a decade.
Finally, the “Beautiful” singer has returned to the thoughtful compositions that once allowed her wrecking-ball range to thrive, and largely abandoned the blaring, techno-laden arrangements that made her most recent LPs Lotus (2012) and Bionic (2010) feel so much like trend-response albums that were chasing Lady Gaga and Rihanna down the dance-pop expressway.
Liberation, out June 15, does well to mimic its ostensibly freeing moniker, trading nights at the club for vibe-y house parties where an occasional boogie might break out among close friends. It’s Christina singing for her inspirations, her family and herself, and if the singles charts don’t respond, so be it. Longtime fans will appreciate the authenticity and reconnection with the now 37-year-old mother of two, who’s in a romantic place that’s particularly lucrative for songwriting: she’s both able to reflect on love gone wrong (she divorced her first husband Jordan Bratman in 2010) while also dialing into all the passion that surrounds her current engagement with fiancé Matthew Rutler.
Sonically, Liberation is largely an R&B album with a handful of island and hip-hop inflections, though Aguilera’s patented gut-punching pop-soul ballads will ultimately drive second listens.
“Twice,” a sparse and pensive track in which Aguilera considers — alongside little more than a measured piano melody — her past failures in love, and how she’d “do it all again and won’t think twice.” It’s the old “it’s better to have loved and lost” motif, matched with a harmonic intro that’s something of a siren song, steering you in before the wailing chorus and Aguilera’s rich Mezzo-Soprano send you overboard. It feels like ages since Aguilera has appeared this raw, crisp and present on record.
“Fall In Line,” her propulsive feminist duet with Demi Lovato, which the pair beautifully showcased at the Billboard Music Awards last month. Considering Lovato’s popularity, “Fall” may have the best chance for a significant mainstream splash, but either way, it’s a monster tune with an important message for young women: speak your mind and be yourself, even when others won’t. The song is preceded by “Dreamers,” an interlude of girls all saying what they want to be when the grow up: journalists, presidents, singers and the boss.
“Unless It’s With You,” the album’s deeply personal closing track — written specifically for her hubby-to-be — details Christina’s fears that encompass a second marriage, but how her love for her husband-to-be essentially conquers all. The vocals here, especially the last 90 seconds, are unspeakably good.
Still, Liberation isn’t all slow jams. The lead single, a dance track called “Accelerate” featuring 2 Chainz and Ty Dolla Sign, is serviceable and already making its rounds on the DJ circuit. And the island-happy banger “Right Moves,” featuring Jamaican dancehall singers Keida and Shenseea, is ripe for a pool party or summer day club.
The Album is a comfortable clip of songs, not overly challenging or needle-moving, but exceedingly listenable when compared to its most recent predecessors. But to call Liberation a return to form wouldn’t be totally accurate; it’s more of an epiphany from a singer who, throughout her career, has occasionally struggled to find her voice in all the noise of pop’s A-List.
It took some time, and a few steps away from the spotlight, but finally, Christina sounds like Christina again, and the results are often dazzling.