A year is a long time in pop, and it’s been over two since Christina Aguilera’s ‘Bionic’ hit the charts. In truth, it’s been almost ten since she was A Big Deal, but she’s one of the most enduringly interesting survivors of the teen-pop era, so when Sony invited us to their offices to listen to her latest album, ‘Lotus’, we were excited to hear what she’d been up to.
They said “see you at 1pm”. We said “great, we’ll be there”. Then they said “actually, can you make it 12.30pm?”. We said “yes, okay.” An exciting insight into our email inbox there, readers. Let’s listen to the album…
1. ‘Lotus Intro’
“This is the beginning” is a fitting lyric for an opening track, isn’t it? A choral riff heralds the rebirth of a very grown-up pop princess spouting on about emerging from pain, “broken pieces” and “never dying” over a heavy hip-hop beat. Christina resolves to “leave the past behind and say goodbye to the scared child inside”. Blimey. There are bongos too. A decent overture that sets the scene for what’s to come.
2. ‘Army of Me’
The first thing that springs to mind here is “ooh, this is all a bit Katy Perry”. Namely, the insistent 4/4 thud of the beat, reminiscent of the defiant ‘Part of Me’, and the lyrics and overall “mood” evocative of ‘Firework”s cardboard cutout inspiration. A reference closer to home would be Aggy’s own ‘Fighter’ – the words “wiser”, “stronger” and “fighter” all figure in the chorus. We quite like the line “there’s a thousand faces on me”, because it sounds like it might be supposed to be a bit rude. Single potential!
3. ‘Red Hot Kinda Love’
A pulsating radio-friendly “jam”, featuring the sound of a motorcycle vroom and the chorus hook “oh baby I’m burning up, you got that red hot kinda love” – oh Christina, you can get a cream for that! Not one of the strongest tracks on the record (but not at all bad. There’s just better to come!).
4. ‘Make the World Move’ (feat. CeeLo Green)
It’s collaboration time! How better to capitalise on your status as a top TV talent judge than by inviting your spinning chair colleague to join you on record? CeeLo duets with Xtina on a galvanising call to arms that equates music with love – “the time is now, no time to wait, turn up the love, turn down the hate”. A mid-tempo banger. Our favourite lyric is “spinning faster, round and round, let me hear that future sound”.
5. ‘Your Body’
A pop stormer produced by certified pop genius Max Martin; you’ve probably heard this one already. Whether this song can redefine Christina as a true competitor to Rihanna, Gaga, etc remains to be seen (it probably won’t; the world of pop moves on quickly and mercilessly) but it’s her most arresting lead single since ‘Dirrty’ and something of a return to form.
6. ‘Let There Be Love’
“I want to tell you my secret”, Christina says, as she hops onto a trend that the charts are tiring of. Yes, what we have here is a synth-heavy Euro club track. The problem here is that this song isn’t doing anything that Rihanna or Usher weren’t doing literally two years ago, and with David Guetta and Calvin Harris beginning to saturate and stagnate, the smart stars are starting to steer clear of the sound. However, it’s a perfectly serviceable and enjoyable example of the genre, and one of our favourite songs on the album. Surely Christina knows this stuff is far from groundbreaking, but maybe she’s just having fun? It’s not pretending to be anything other than a dancefloor anthem with a gloriously unrestrained vocal, after all.
7. ‘Sing For Me’
Now here’s a niche in which Ms Aguilera excels – the self-help ballad. From ‘Beautiful’ to ‘The Voice Within’, 2002’s ‘Stripped’ album was wall-to-wall with these, and ‘Sing For Me’ deftly adds another fine specimen to the canon. The lyrics are really rather wonderful, from the boastful (“all I have is three million melodies to kill the hurt”) to the anatomically worrying (“when I open my mouth my whole heart comes out”). Like many of the songs on the album, it delivers just as much as you want it to without outstaying its welcome.
8. ‘Blank Page’
Before Sia Furler was a guest vocalist for Flo Rida and David Guetta, she didn’t half know her way around a decent ballad. Luckily, this is still the case. ‘Blank Page’ is the best song on this album. “I know there’s hurt, I know there’s pain but people change, Lord knows I’ve been no saint”, the song begins, with a restrained (if not exactly plaintive) vocal that allows an often OTT warbler to display some rare vulnerability. It’s an attractive quality. The lyric “let our hearts start and beat as one forever” is fairly direct in its loveliness, too. A triumph, and there’ll be riots (of the virtual, internet forum type) if this isn’t released as a single.
9. ‘Cease Fire’
Military drums and war metaphors ahoy! “Throw down your weapons, I’m on your side”. Clunky lyrics aside, this is quite charming in a track-9-on-a-Christina-Aguilera-album kind of way. Another mid-tempo we reckon we’ll find ourselves singing along whilst doing the ironing.
10. ‘Around the World’
This is more like it. “Tell me where you really wanna go”, demands a flirtatious Xtina, the pace quickening for a danceable romp from “Hollywood to Japan, Tokyo to Milan”. Deliciously silly lyrics include “sit back and enjoy the ride…making love worldwide”.
“Spin around in circles on my little middle finger”. Yes, you heard right. Hilarious and disgusting, two admirable qualities in a popstar. An angry rock track which sees Christina berating the haterzzz for “talking shit-a, shit-a!” Oh my. There’s something simultaneously cringeworthy and amazing about this (less dignified) sequel to ‘Fighter’. The last line is “round and round, motherfucker!” (and yet ‘Your Body’, six tracks earlier, is featured in its clean version. Weird.)
12. ‘Best of Me’
A slightly misleading acoustic guitar intro gives way to military drums (hmmm, a little too similar to ‘Cease Fire’, perhaps). We take issue with the lyrics “knocked down and mistreated, heartbroken and beated, still I rise undefeated” as they skim just a little too close to Aguilera parody. Skip this one next time.
13. ‘Just a Fool’ (with Blake Shelton)
“Who knew that love was so cruel?” The album concludes with a swinging country ballad duet, in which Christina waits “so long for someone who’ll never come home”. Overwrought and predictable, but quite sad. :(
So, there we are. ‘Lotus’ isn’t a perfect record, but undeniably Christina Aguilera’s most accomplished set of songs in ten years. As a post-divorce Christina enters her thirties, sex and self-examination feature heavily (but then sex and self-examination have always featured heavily with Christina).
In the decade that’s passed since ‘Stripped’, Ms Aguilera’s potency as a chart force and a relevant cultural icon has waned quite considerably. We can’t help feeling that if she hadn’t bothered with all that Forces Sweetheart jazz nonsense and had released ‘Lotus’ as the immediate successor to ‘Stripped’, she might well still be a dominant figure on the pop scene.
The most striking thing about the album, and the secret to its success, is its conciseness. Thirteen songs. 47 minutes and 29 seconds. Xtina has undoubtedly found herself a victim of her own creative ambition on more than one occasion in the past. Whether she’s being kept on a tight leash or has simply become aware enough to exercise a little self-editing, it’s a blessing.