Christina Aguilera sets herself free on ‘Liberation’—but from what?

Christina Aguilera

Christina Aguilera Associated Press

Mariah’s emancipation. Janet’s declaration of control. The constant rueful provocation of Madonna’s first two decades. And now, Christina’s Liberation.

Christina Aguilera’s first album in six years is the latest chapter in a well-documented female pop star tradition: the album as a statement of autonomy and career-defining independence. It arrives armed with a built-in mission statement and a stripped-down makeup-free album photo that reveals freckles and a pensive gaze.

But it’s also fair to ask: liberation from… what exactly? After all, this is the same singer who followed up her bubblegum debut with “Dirrty,” shedding her Disney-ready image through matted dreadlocks and assless chaps. In the hall-of-fame of pop reinventions it was a doozy, and while the song title was a bit misleading—the rest of Stripped was more concerned with pretense-free introspection than raunchy sex—this powerful statement of assertive wheel-grabbing offered Christina the opportunity to dictate the course of her career on her own terms.

Stripped’s successors have been less successful. Following an experimentation with ’40s jazz by way of Betty Boop on 2006’s Back to Basics, 2010’s Bionic chased Lady Gaga and the looming EDM boom with occasionally innovative results, while 2012’s Lotus was a perfunctory scramble of power-pop clichés assembled solely to take advantage of her tenure on NBC’s The Voice. Prior to Liberation’s long-gestating release, there was a prevailing sense that Xtina had lost whatever spark she’d fought so hard for over 15 years ago.

Which is all one big setup to say that Liberation sounds like Christina Aguilera is actually excited to be making music again. Following a lush instrumental introduction performed by Moonlight composer Nicholas Britell and a chilling a cappella tribute to The Sound of Music, Aguilera dives deep into the album’s existential themes on proper opener “Maria.” One of two tracks composed by human lightning rod Kanye West, “Maria” is fittingly dramatic in tone, with Christina fighting to reclaim her inner child and passion for music in a way that directly acknowledges her struggle to maintain agency throughout her 20 years in the spotlight. Accompanied by a sped-up Jackson 5 sample and a swirl of Late Registration-era harpsichords and dense string arrangements, the track is an early highlight, effectively setting the tone for the combative angst and frank honesty that follows.

The fight against stagnancy continues on “Sick of Sittin’,” a terrific slice of percolating Janis Joplin drum-heavy funk-rock courtesy of Anderson.Paak. It’s as good a reminder of the sheer raw power of Aguilera’s voice as anything else here, her bluesy rasp tearing into lines like “It’s good pay but it’s laboring” and “I can’t live with these chains on me” that both address and seek to rectify the shortcomings of her last few albums.

That defiance reaches a fever pitch on the album’s surprise standout, “Fall in Line,” a duet with the equally mammoth-voiced Demi Lovato. Considering the track is preceded by a well-intentioned but cheesy chorus of little girls spouting lines like “When I grow up I wanna be a superhero,” the stage was set for a toothless self-empowerment anthem for the #MeToo generation with all the edge of a P&G commercial. Instead, “Fall in Line” is much more ambitious, taking an acidic and sardonic look at pervasive misogyny over a glacial, warping, Portishead-style beat. With these two on board, the vocals reach their expected histrionic climax, but given the chopped and screwed male voice chanting “March 2-3, shut your mouth, stick your ass out for me” in the background, it’s fair to say the pair have earned their right to suck a little marrow through their teeth.

While Liberation has no central thesis larger than “Christina is trying again,” there are genuine moments of white-knuckled experimentation that suggest the 37-year-old is truly unconcerned with topping the charts. Aguilera must have known that the delightfully bizarre and atonal first single “Accelerate” would be divisive. Met with a scattered reaction that bordered on hostile, the Kanye West-produced track is a distorted cacophony that recalls some of the intentionally hostile sounds of Yeezus. Motifs are abandoned left and right, and Ty Dolla $ign sounds asphyxiated, but Christina’s buoyant house vocal effortlessly ducks and weaves through the shifting tempos. As destined as it was to flop, a few more songs like this and Liberation could have reached a pop weirdo transcendence.

Excluding the breezy Goldlink collaboration “Like I Do,” the rest of the album is more conventional. “Right Moves” is a pleasant but unremarkable crescent wave of tropical vibes at the height of faux-reggae season, while “Pipe” is sexy trap-lite that surely would have featured a Drake verse if the label could’ve been persuaded to fork over the cash. Still, even when the risk-taking is curbed, there’s an energy to Aguilera’s performance that hasn’t been this apparent in over a decade. A spiritual sister to Stripped, Liberation is the sound of a still-vital pop voice intent on fighting for the reins. Again.