Christina Aguilera - Liberation (Review)


Just when you think that modern pop music has gone fully back to form (less repetitive house melodies beats, more experiments, more variety, more ambition, a certain appreciation of the past decades), a queen of the past decade enters the room again and tells everyone to step aside - and shows them how it’s done. Christina Aguilera’s Liberation is the perfect demonstration that pop music, vocal talent, thoughtful songwriting, trends and nostalgia not only can be combined, but can become a huge, massive force. It’s not simply great, it’s mind blowingly masterful.

When Aguilera left the stage in 2012, she wasn’t really in her best form. Lotus felt like a cheap knock off of all the trends that were popular at that time, strapped of the slightest personality and drowned in cheap filters and sounds that were familiar from other, lesser artists. It became pretty frustrating hearing this kind of music from every artist on the charts, whether newcomer (Taio Cruz, Flo Rida,...) or already established pop icon (Rihanna, The Black Eyed Peas, Britney Spears,...), but it hurts even more hearing this from the best singer of her generation, especially after such colossal records like Stripped and Back to Basics, easily two of the best pop albums of the 2000s (Bionic was already a big step back from that level, as the electro sound didn’t fit her at all, but it did have some inventive ideas).

The 6 years off stage were really good for her. Freed of the spotlight, she raised her kids, and in the meantime also found time to reconsider what she really wants to be: a pop star or a true artist? She’s always been torn between these two options throughout her career. There’s a lot of classic singer-songwriter soul inside of her, yet she isn’t one to say no to overly catchy radio hits, both of which she is able to deliver. Truth be said: she has the sole best voice of any artist that’s popular in the 21st century, a naturally headstrong and self conscious presence and a lyrical talent that’s outstanding. And Liberation is the third album on which she fully gives in to all her capabilities.

In a way, it could as well be titled “Stripped Vol. 2”. Both records marked a departure from her previous work - away from pop and towards a more artistic ambition. The difference may be that her self titled debut is quite a few times better than Lotus, and actually marks a highlight in the pop landscape around the turn of the millennium. But that’s another story. Her new album is also reminiscent of her 2003 masterpiece in that it combines classic, nostalgic 60s/70s songwriting with modern sounds (luckily, she doesn’t settle for trap - as much as I enjoy this genre, it’s just not fitting for a voice that huge). Common points are also inclusion of meaningful interludes/preludes and a constant theme of female strength.

But that is not to say the album feels recycled. Instead, it feels like there’s been a side of Aguilera trapped in her body that wanted to break out for years, constantly filling up with new ideas until it couldn’t be held in anymore. As we get to know, this side is called Maria, after her middle name, and it takes over until it reaches the titular liberation. There’s also a Kanye West produced song called Maria on the record, and fairly early into the album, the moment it kicks in becomes a powerful demonstration of her talent. Back in 2009, Aguilera wore a shirt reading “Autotune is for p-----s”. Over the years she specified this statement - she feels that using artificial pitch correction is cheating, but likes the robotic vocal effects you can do with it for aesthetic reasons, which she herself did in the early 2010s - but her natural vocals remain the core of Liberation. It stands out among the other charting songs of the last years (spare Adele and a bunch of others who adore vintage sounds), the bass and warmth of her vocals not having been edited out with the hi-pass filter like on so many other modern albums. The beats may be fresh and poppy, but the singing is all natural (of course, more upbeat tracks have a few effects added, but they are just that: effects, not the main focus. Maria contains a Jackson 5 sample and a pounding 808 beat, but there is never any doubt that the spotlight belongs to the woman on the mic.

Sick of Sittin’ is a straightforward rock song with distorted guitars, wild percussion and, of course, vigorous and roaring vocals that could have as well been performed by Tina Turner in her best days. There were hints at this earlier (Make Over), but never did Aguilera go out rockin’ in such a huge, badass way - and still it comes out as if she never did any other genre of music.

Fall in Line is an anthemic duet with Demi Lovato about female intelligence and power that makes a very clear statement against sexism. In times of the MeToo movement, maybe she’s heard even more than she was 15 years ago when she already brought that topic up. The song is a magnificent big band inspired diva moment, sung masterfully by both artists (I didn’t know Lovato had that much soul in her voice) and featuring intelligent wordings, such as a play on words with fire and burning, to get the point across. Musically and lyrically, but also in its topic’s relevance, it doesn’t get much better than this.

With Accelerate, Aguilera also brings in some fine old fashioned dirty 2000s uptempo hip-pop crossover vibe. It instantly reminds us of songs like Dirrty, and evolves into pure bliss for the clubs that’s miles ahead of her early 2010s idea of electro pop, and exactly what an energetic, funky uptempo pop single should sound like. You don’t need to be afraid of losing the old poppy Aguilera - she’s still there, and at a qualitatively very high level.

She’s also more adventurous and diverse in influences. Take for example Right Moves, on which she heavily interpolates reggae elements. Although she never did that before, she’s fit to record an entire album in that style. If Shaggy and Sting ever decide to record a sequel to their recent collaboration, they might as well let Xtina join in.

And then, of course, there’s Twice. Wow. Just wow. Using multi-tracking, there’s a choir of Christina Aguileras singing in harmony so perfectly it sometimes feels like we have the female rebirth of Freddie Mercury blessing our eardrums. This only highlights the verses, in which the focus is solely on her unaltered naturally given singing talent. The control she has over her voice is incredible.

That’s just to select a few highlights to show how many different approaches were masterfully used to create a perfect pop record. And still it never feels disjointed, and even plays like a concept album, with the recurring theme of liberation in the center of attention. A liberation from current trends, a liberation from gender stereotypes and not unlikely a liberation from the role she felt she had to play in the pop music industry. With an equal embrace for old and new sounds that ignores conventions, and a healthy amount of courage to try out styles she has never sung before, Christina Aguilera’s Liberation feels fresher, more thought out and simply better than whatever is on the charts. And this comes from someone who is very fascinated by the evolution of pop.