Christina Aguilera Bares All on ‘Liberation’

Pop icon Christina Aguilera is a mainstream mainstay, ever-present in the public eye from the days of “The Mickey Mouse Club” to “TRL,” to “The Voice,” and beyond. Her constant evolution has seen her assume such disparate forms as new millenium pop princess, stripper diva, and soul revivalist. Throughout the trajectory, she has consistently stood out among her peers, backing up her pop posturing with some serious singing chops. Her latest offering, “Liberation,” is a collection of reflective musings and empowering calls to action, with flirty, frivolous fare offering scattered moments of relief.

The album begins with an overture, “Liberation,” full of hazy strings, with scattered baby’s laughter, and Aguilera breathing a few hushed lines over the course of the track: “Where are you? / Are you there? / Remember.” It’s clear from the onset that she’s taking liberties with her pop superstar status, opting for a more soul-searching record. The second track, “Searching For Maria,” only seconds long, finds her singing, “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” The film “Sound of Music” is so deeply ingrained in popular culture that decades after Coltrane’s take on “My Favorite Things,” we’re still returning to it. It should be noted that Aguilera’s middle name happens to be María. She has described this song as “an homage to a side of myself I lost touch with for a number of years,” going on to describe the character Maria in the film as, “an irrepressible free spirit (who) struggles to find herself and her freedom.”

Kanye West co-written and co-produced track “Maria” begins with a sample of young Michael Jackson’s “Maria (You Were the Only One,)” with Aguilera’s vocals entering and elegantly meshing. She’s now charged and booming, assuming the lower register in a rather masculine way, in the tradition of Tina Turner. It’s super-diva empowerment fare, with plentiful backing vocals creating a vaguely call-and-response feel, and situating the sound comfortably in “soul” territory. This escalates readily, with the next song, “Sick of Sittin’” a throwback to ‘70s protest music, with soaring vocals over wah pedals, congas, boisterous audience sounds, and an overall Gil Scott Heron-type vibe. “Dreamers” is another interlude with children’s voices declaring their future dreams. Aguilera picks up, on cue, on the dramatic “Fall In Line.” There’s a subdued, dirty wobble bass, immediately adding some grit, and the melody is instantly catchy. She howls, “I wasn’t made to fall in line,” with unprecedented ferocity. Demi Lovato joins her for an impassioned howling duel. The creed seems to be “no word done justice without abundant melisma,” and at times it can be rather overbearing, an onslaught of cascading, fluctuating histrionics. Yet, It’s done impeccably. A key change toward the end brings on an especially emotionally-charged moment, drawing you headlong into the flurry.

“Right Moves,” is a well-timed laid-back breather. There’s a vaguely tropical groove, and Christina’s singing is sultry and sinuous. The dancehall reggae contributions from Shenseea and Keida seem, at moments, like a rather forced, ungraceful attempt at genre-hopping. Aguilera goes on to explore sounds, with “Like I Do,” featuring rapper GoldLink. The production nods to UK Grime, and it’s done masterfully, seeming more seamless and coherent than the previous track. Aguilera has always been more versatile than she often gets credit for, and this song is a prime example. The wonky sound and cheerful, lighthearted vibe is worlds away from the militant self- assertion earlier. “Deserve” has a chorus with Aguilera whining, “So I say some fucked up shit just to hurt you.” Often, an expletive thrown into an unexpectant musical context grounds the song in modern vernacular, adds an element of humor, and renders a song freshly relatable. That’s not quite the case here, as Aguilera’s strained, nasal vocal just comes across as awkward. The production comes to the rescue, combining dreamy ambience with a tight, syncopated beat.  

“Twice” is an intimate, heartfelt moment, returning to gospel-tinged stylings. The self-introspection hinted at earlier is now in full force. Aguilera reflects, “Sometimes I wonder what is the meaning of this life,” and concludes, “I’d do it all again and won’t think twice, won’t think twice.” She shines as a singer here, gliding effortlessly from vulnerable whisper to commanding roar. “I Don’t Need It Anymore,” yet another interlude, harnesses the feeling, with Aguilera howling the titular line, her voice disappearing in a drowning, reverberated fade-out that conveys a feeling all-encompassing, yet fleeting.

The Kanye West-produced “Accelerate” is a refreshing moment. It begins with tribal drums, tying together the protest music threads. An infectious synth bass enters, and Aguilera engages in an exhilaratingly off-kilter back-and-forth with Ty Dolla $ign. The song is a resounding reminder that Aguilera has more verve and vivacity than many of her popstar counterparts.The beat takes a trap turn as 2 Chainz shows up. There’s plenty immodest sexual innuendo in the lyrics, something present since the “Genie In a Bottle” days. Things get even more licentious on “Pipe,” The melody at the beginning of the verse is remarkably similar to that of R Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix,)” a rather audacious instance of “borrowing,” although it’s just for a snippet. XNDA drops a verse, and Aguilera sings half-panting, making a gaudy display.

“Masochist” is a neat transition from the club quarters to the church district, with Aguilera baring her bones in full relationship-drama hysteria. The way her lines, “I should go,” and “Yeah I know,” cascade is some adept R&B craftwork. The percussion is filtered and muffled, leaving the vocals front and center, to great emotional effect. “Unless With You” finishes on a personal, romantic note, with Aguilera singing, “I don’t want to get married unless it’s with you,” accompanied by only piano, sparse hushed backing vocals, and well-timed cymbals. It’s soul music condensed and saturated, lending itself to a parody replete with interpretive dance routines. Still, the over-the-top, effusive outpouring is undeniably impressive.

Aguilera made headlines earlier this year posing without makeup for Paper magazine, teasing the direction of her new album. The interlude “Searching For Maria” encapsulates the presumed nature of the undertaking — chipping away at the glossy sheen, deflating the mystique, unveiling the facade of a shape-shifting pop persona. The drawback is that “Liberation” does this halfheartedly. Duties are split haphazardly, with Aguilera flaunting her enlightenment in as dramatic of a manner possible, only to don her makeup and put on a little routine between epiphanies. The variety is laudable, but the whole package seems a bit slapdash. Still, the singing is unfailingly virtuosic, and the vibrance and versatility on display make for an enjoyable listen.

Liberation” is available June 15 on Apple Music.