December 2012

Music Review: Lotus - Christina Aguilera's
Comeback Album
By Scott Kearnan

Lotus was primed to be Christina Aguilera's comeback album, but its stalled first single, low first-week sales, and lukewarm reviews don't bode well. Maybe the December release of its second single, "Just a Fool," will change its luck; maybe it's being underrated; or maybe it just doesn't rise to the standards of one of contemporary pop music's truly great singers. Here's a track-by-track look at what works, and what doesn't, on Lotus.

Lotus Intro:
This intro is longer than several songs on the album – and better than many of them. Aguilera announces her arrival/revival over a jangling, New Age-y melody that sounds like an up-tempo demo for a Pure Moods compilation. Analogizing her self to a Lotus, a flower that she has described in interviews as able to survive "under even the harshest circumstances," she declares herself ready to "rise up, this is the beginning." It's one of the cooler, more adventurous tracks, stokes drama, and sets up expectations that the album will be an intimate, soul-baring exploration of emotional rebirth. That promise, unfortunately, is never entirely fulfilled.

Army of Me:
Aguilera has referred to "Army of Me" as "Fighter 2.0" in several interviews, referring to the empowerment anthem off her 2002 album Stripped. There are a few lyrical nods to the hit: "One of me is wiser, one of me is stronger," she proclaims, running through the same testaments to her steely mettle she celebrated a decade ago. Though she challenges her detractors to "face an army of me," the song never finds a hook that is bold, sassy and unforgettable enough to match its bravado. Aguilera's wails sound uncharacteristically hoarse and craggy, a problem that recurs throughout Lotus. Ten years after "Fighter," "Army of Me" feels more like a training exercise.

Red Hot Kinda Love:
It's a hard pill to swallow when a sturdy, badass bitch like Xtina tries to sound breezy and lightweight. Thankfully, "Red Hot Kinda Love" isn't the embarrassing cringe-fest of "I Hate Boys" and "My Girls," a one-two slap of Kidz Bop material inexplicitly tacked on to the end of her otherwise ferocious 2010 album Bionic. A voice and presence as voracious as Aguilera's may not be a natural fit for this song's lyrics: "I feel a little shy, a little girly, don't know why," she delivers with baby talk diction. But there's a joyous, boogie-woogie flavor here that carries her lilting, la-la-la vocals just above the dangerous chasm of sonic kitsch. By pure pop standards, this won't make you forget "Genie in a Bottle." But it's a melodic magic carpet ride worth taking.

Make the World Move:
If there was any doubt that Aguilera was aiming for a blockbuster commercial comeback after the disappointment of Bionic, it's made clear by the album's collaborations with her fellow The Voice judges. Slapping their names on the track list reminds audiences of her Nielsen ratings-blessed relevance, and virtually guarantees a live promotional performance. Surprise, surprise: last week Aguilera and her hardly-featured co-judge Cee Lo Green performed "Make the World Move." It's an especially generic let's-come-together-everybody shout-out for world peace (or uh, something) occasionally buttressed by some funky horns. You have to admire Aguilera's ability to always sing it like she means it, even when it's not clear what she means. But "Make the World Move" suffers from the same problem as most up-tempo songs on Lotus: the market-tested pieces are there, but the sum total feels flat - more like an exceptional commercial jingle than a song. I feel less motivated to make the world move, and more inclined to buy it a refreshing Diet Coke. [Crack; Fizz!]

Your Body:
Lotus's lead single is a perfect treatise on mainstream radio favoritism. Its of-the-moment electro-pop production and infectious melody, provided by perennial pop hit-maker Max Martin (the man who built the House of Britney), should have easily catapulted "Your Body" to the higher echelons of Billboard. That the zeitgeist-y song is delivered by one of the few voices in the genre that can really sang gurl should have guaranteed it would top the charts. But "Your Body" barely scratched the Top 40. The only explanation I can offer is that, in a world where The X-Factor has officially downgraded its old-fogey-contestant category from the "Over 30s" to the "Over 25s," Aguilera is considered past-prime for even consummately crafted sex-me-up pop gems. That should make anyone actually old enough to possess a libido just a little bit angry. (Be warned, Rihanna: time is ticking.)

Let There Be Love:
Donna Summer just twitched. "Let There Be Love" may not be the most brilliant musical exercise on Lotus, but it's possibly the most effortless. Aguilera, who has enjoyed and embraced a gay fan base since early in her career, finally lets loose with a full-throated, disco diva-style club anthem. (It's hard to believe it took so long.) The track is unselfconsciously flamboyant, urging listeners to "let there be love, here in the dark," and could only be less nuanced if it blew puffs of purple glitter from speakers. But even if you're not the type inclined to dance atop boxes wearing a feather boa and wedge heels, it's hard to deny that Aguilera sounds pretty damn at home here. Replicate this in more sophisticated forms, and you'd have an illuminating glimpse at the type of pop record Lotus could have been.

Sing for Me:
Finally, a proper Aguilera ballad to remind us why we showed up. "When I open my mouth, my whole heart comes out," she sings, extolling the cathartic release of music. She wrings the words like a tear-soaked sponge, and it's effective – at first. By the inevitably fanfare-fueled finale, Aguilera nearly turns into Ursula the Sea Witch, almost stealing away tender emotiveness from her own song. It was ten years ago on Stripped when, eager to prove she was no squeaky Mouseketeer, Aguilera unleashed the type of wildfire melisma that made her famous. At the time, it already sounded like it was approaching over-the-top-ness; compared to Christina circa 2012, it sounds positively restrained. That's not a good thing. Fans love her vocal gymnastics, but hard landings rob the exercise of its grace. Still, this is a standout.

Blank Page:
Aguilera's collaborations with singer-songwriter Sia were among the highlights of Bionic, so it's exciting to see them team up again to write "Blank Page." On an album that seemed to promise some substantive psychological unburdening, "Blank Page" is one of the few songs sketching out for us whatever pain Aguilera - through all the other chest-thumping, self-congratulatory songs - is determined to rise above. (Context, honey. It's good.) "Draw me a smile, and save me tonight," she implores. "Paint me a heart, let me be your art." From man-eater to heart-bleeder, the fourth song in a stretch of classic Christina tunes. The batting average of Lotus has improved.

Cease Fire:
STRIKE. (Well, that was fast.) It's not just that "Cease Fire" is a 4-minute metaphor that tries to settle relationship warfare through lay-down-your-arms-baby lyrics. It's not just that it's set to hackneyed militaristic snare drumming that is draining, not dramatic. It's not just the Rihanna-like faux patois that Aguilera employs over the chorus. (Okay, it might be that.) It's all of these things, and the absence of anything that resembles a song, rather than a too-clever idea. Appropriately enough, "Cease Fire" is the least engaging track.

Around the World:
Back on track with one of the better upbeat songs. Like "Cease Fire," "Around the World" is built around a hardly-novel conceit: namely, the idea of boinking in various countries. But unlike "Cease Fire," there's a discernible hook, a sassy sing-along appeal, and an absence of misplaced self-seriousness. Aguilera gets to rhyme "Japan" with "Milan" and give her back catalog a righteous shout-out. ("Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?") We get to subtly shake our tuckus while jogging to this on the treadmill. Everybody wins. Was that really so hard?

Every modern diva album needs a song about telling off dem vaguely delineated haters, y'all. (Am I right, girls? Lemme hear you scream!) This is Aguilera's, and it's fine. I guess. Granted, she's showing her age a bit with its dated call to "spin around in circles on my middle finger," a comeback quip excavated from the era of She's All That. But she also sings it through the type of screechy, over-processed vocal filter reminiscent of ‘90s girl-grunge. So if "Circles" winds up sounding more regressive than aggressive, at least it's consistent in the delivery of its gleefully childlike, one-sided repartee.

Best of Me:
Another entry in the Aguilera canon of Rise Above-anthems. The singer sounds battle-worn but resolved, parading her indomitable spirit: "Aren't you tired of throwing stones, trying to kick me when I'm down? You'll never get the best of me, oh no." Finally, you have to ask: Who are all these shadowy, ninja-like assassins of her awesomeness crawling out of every corner? Critics? "Society?" Her ex-husband? Increasingly transparent manifestations of self-doubt? (Gasp! Maybe!) It's likely all of them, but Aguilera never gets specific enough for us to understand – and thus, care – what all this very, very loud demon tackling is about. She should have taken a cue from spirit mama Madonna, who while vocally inferior is more artistically focused. Like Aguilera, Madonna is often characterized as icy and aloof, but even she lets her guard down (if in a very safe, controlled way) on her introspective rebound-from-drama albums: best works such as Like a Prayer, Ray of Light, and this year's post-divorce manifesto MDNA, to which Lotus bears a slight thematic resemblance. Pipes like Aguilera's would do wonders in the type of aural therapy session she craves. Too bad she's too busy shouting, "I'm fine!" to more honestly indulge us.

Just a Fool:
A country-tinged duet with fellow The Voice judge Blake Shelton, "Just a Fool" trades in the hoariest clichés of the genre's penchant for breakup balladry. "Another shot of whisky please, bartender," is literally the first line out of anyone's mouth here. It's safe and polished, with a chorus as wide as Walmart. Yeah, there's a slight disconnect when they harmonize: Aguilera seems to think she's on a battle round of The Voice, and strangles the comparatively restrained Blake with her vocal chords. (As is her wont, of course.) But even if this unlikely musical coupling couldn't outlast a mayfly, it sure is a pretty affair while it lasts. Sniffle.

Light Up the Sky:
Lest Katy Perry think she has the market cornered on "Fireworks"-esque odes to special-ness, "Light Up the Sky" shows up like a big stick of dynamite that wants to shame other pop stars' puny little sparklers. Once again, Aguilera's voice has the TNT to explode the roof off things – if only she was given a song with architecture more interesting than that of a tract house. This, aside from its impersonality, might be Lotus's main problem: it's the sound of passion being suffocated by competence. Taken on its own, "Light Up the Sky" is a bright spot, even if its chest-swelling chorus is marred by an oddly muffled mix.

Empty Words:
Another one of Lotus's rare homeruns, and another that makes you wonder why no one decided to clone its trusty patent for success: take one part mid-tempo song structure, pepper with uplifting lyrics, serve on a plate of powerful (but not overpowering) vocal prowess. "So go ahead and say the things you've got to say. You know you're only throwing empty words my way. You won't break me, you can't take me down," sings Aguilera, sounding more convincing and compelling here than in most of the other more bombastic songs. More of this, please. Some might call it formulaic; I call it playing to your strengths.

Shut Up:
A brattier little sister to "Circles," "Shut Up" is a tell-off track in which Aguilera repeatedly, and oh-so-eloquently, orders enemies to "shut the [bleep] up." No, not being shy about language there: the expletive is replaced by a "bleep" noise in the actual song. It turns what would have been a vulgar novelty tune into a boring, juvenile one – which is the far greater crime. And the unnecessary act of self-censorship echoes why Lotus, solidly unspectacular, never fully blooms: as always, Aguilera yells so well – but for the first time, she avoids saying much at all.

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