Two years may not be the longest window of time. Yet, in the career of superstar Christina Aguilera the last 730 days have brought with them a series of challenges. For many, the most notable of these is the under-performance of ‘Bionic’ – her ill-fated 2010 LP. Received well critically, the set struggled to ignite the charts in the manner Aguilera’s past releases had, quickly fading into Pop abyss.
Fast-forward to today and the climate looks altogether brighter for the self-branded ‘Fighter’. A rejuvenating stint on NBC’s The Voice has seen “Brand Xtina” back in business, clearing the commercial freeway for the 31 year old’s “comeback”.
Christened ‘Lotus’, the singer’s 5th studio outing is immediately noteworthy in that, despite boasting a loose narrative of “freedom” and “self-expression”, it’s the first of Aguilera’s post-teen-queen releases not tied to an overt “theme”. A fact that re-affirms her position as one of Pop’s most renown risk-takers. For, not only has the length and breadth of her success come from concept records, we’re in an era where top ten tallies often sound like the same song with different lyrics.
As such, from the onset, Aguilera tasks herself with standing out from the pack – in an era where the stakes are both higher and harsher. That Grape Juice attended the exclusive ‘Lotus’ album playback at Sony Music London today. Find out whether her risk paid off below…
The LP sets sail on whimsical note with the ‘Lotus Intro’. Clocking in at full-song length, the Electro Ballad is Enya-flavored, sonically soothing with great vocal layering courtesy of Alex Da Kid. And while the track centers on a narrative of being emotionally “set free”, it sets the stage for an album-long showcase of not just The Voice, but that Voice.
Indeed, for much of ‘Lotus’, Aguilera sings like the rent was due –- last week. From the thundering thump of lead single ‘Your Body’ to the haunting ‘Cease Fire’, the mother of one leaves no doubt that her voice is alien, other-worldy, epic. And while it’s a voice the world has known for almost 15 years, it’s one whose melisma never fails to mesmerize – especially on her latest collection of hits. Make no mistake; ‘Lotus’ is Santa-sack-packed with potential smashes.
Produced by Pop maestro Max Martin, ‘Let There Be Love’ serves as one of many standouts. Destined for the dance-floor (“let there be love, here here in this club)”, the high-octane cut sees Aguilera flirt with the brand of Electro-Pop that has dominated the charts during much of her bench-time. However, the track avoids generic territory in that it’s almost tailor-made for a vocal like Christina’s. She soars effortlessly, complimenting the pulsating production with her trademark acrobatics.
Elsewhere, the pace is slowed down with the sublime ‘Sing For Me’. A blazing R&B ballad, the song’s lyrics are soaked in both sorrow and triumph as they relay a narrative of hardship and overcoming. “I sing ‘cause I’m winning, I’m singing for me” Aguilera belts over the moody Aeon Manahan production. Boasting the “classic ballad” key-change, ‘Sing’ is easily one of the songbird’s most stirring efforts yet. Similarly, the anthemic ‘Army Of Me’ borrows from the same school of “self-belief” – only several decibels louder. Rock-tinged and boasting heavy drums, the Aguilera penned track is a sure-fire fist-pumper; although, the sprinkles of Dance on the chorus throw things off somewhat. For, what should be one killer cut, more often than not, sounds like three muddled songs in one.
It’s a minute flaw on a body of work that, for all its goodness, isn’t without moments of “why?” Indeed, while inoffensive, many will ask ‘why’ Retro-filler ‘Red Hot Kinda Love’ made the album. ‘Why’ is Christina singing in that butt-clenching ‘island’ accent on the otherwise solid ‘Around The World’. And ‘why’ – despite its fun-factor – ‘Circles’ still grates. Co-penned by Aguilera herself, the track takes aim with “bitter haters”, commanding them to spin “round, round, motherf**ker, round” on her middle finger. For an artist who naturally drips “cool”, it’s uncharacteristically contrived.
Still, ‘Lotus’ is more than redeemed by a host of solid album tracks. Aguilera’s Voice cohorts Cee-Lo Green and Blake Shelton make enjoyable appearances on ‘Make The World Move’ and ‘Just A Fool’ respectively. The former, a funky Soul cut, asks the masses to “turn up the love / turn down the hate”. Flavoursome and, importantly, not “Pop-star-political”, the cut could give the album added legs if commissioned as a single towards the end of the campaign. Meanwhile, the Claude Kelly penned ‘Fool’ would make for an interesting litmus test of Aguilera’s commercial potential in the Country arena if ever released.
However, it is Sia number ‘Blank Page’ that serves as the centre-piece of the album. A first-cousin of Aguilera’s 2002 hit ‘Beautiful’, the stunning ballad boasts sparse production, showcasing the length, breadth, and strength of her voice. That voice.
As such, with ‘Lotus’, Aguilera delivers her most compelling set since ‘Stripped’. In an era where voiceless voices are topping the charts, Christina brings “ the vocal” back to the forefront against a backdrop of songs that are richly diverse. Songs she skilfully sews together with her trademark spark and “isms (“ya ya”, “ha”, and soulful growls affectionately lace each track). Packed with radio-ready hooks and melodies, the album manages to not compromise lyrical quality either.
The definition of Premium Pop, ‘Lotus’ serves as one of the most nutritious album releases in years. Tuck in on November 13th!
That Grape Juice Rating: