Music Review: Full Bloom

Christina Aguilera‘s big voice and big attitude combine for an album that’s a big return to her strongest suits with Lotus.

Christina Aguilera’s been through a lot in the last few years. Her underrated 2010 album Bionic didn’t connect with audiences or critics the way it should have and was unfairly seen as a misfire. Then she starred in the film Burlesque, which was a mild success, again unfairly dismissed by critics despite Christina’s surprisingly winning acting debut. In 2011, she got divorced, embarrassingly forgot the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner” in front of 100 million people and was roundly criticized for (gasp!) gaining some curves and looking like a real woman. All of her recent peaks and valleys are channeled into Lotus, one of Christina’s most consistent, enjoyable and, at times, most personal albums.

Infused with a sense of confidence and triumph over adversity, Lotus is in many ways a return to Christina’s strongest points, aka her unchallenged powerhouse of a voice. She reigned the Belt in with Bionic, which turned some fans off, but proved to be effective in the context of that album. Here, however, she lets it out full force, no stop, take no prisoners starting with the first track. The delicate, slightly automated vocals of “Lotus Intro” are joined by a slowly rising Belt in the background, organically unfurling like the flower of the title.

Flowers for Aguilera.

“Lotus Intro” also signals immediately that this album will be a massive sonic shift from her previous work. Bionic was all about electronica, while Back to Basics saw Christina working a vintage R&B angle. “Lotus Intro”‘s exotic strings and flow are something new, and while Christina still engages in some of the mask-switching that was Bionic‘s primary factor, her voice sounds more connected to the music than it’s ever been, sitting comfortably atop the sound beds instead of over them, even at full Belt.

A number of producers contributed to the album, but most tracks were the work of Alex da Kid, whose work primarily involves hip-hop and R&B. Aside from a few tracks produced by the ubiquitous (but welcome) Max Martin, Christina in general avoided working with of-the-moment producers, giving the album a more organic and personal sound than, say, Madonna’s trend-chasing MDNA. Of the tracks not produced by Mr. da Kid, only “Just A Fool” seems like a genuine misfire, and the album feels more like a coherent whole than her previous albums.

Mama Christina wants you.

For the most part, Lotus is just about equally divided between high-energy dance/pop and emotional ballads. The album is front-loaded with the dance/pop, seeming to slow down in tempo (but not in energy) as the album goes on. After “Let There Be Love,” there isn’t a song that goes above 96 bpm. It’s understandable, since Christina’s voice really shines when it gets a slow, emotional lyric. Unlike the ballads in Bionic, which by and large sounded like they belonged on a separate album, the ballads here fit well in the album’s flow and are offset by a few genuinely rocking and funky mid-tempo cuts.

Lead single “Your Body” is one of the album’s major highlights and a good benchmark for the rest of the album. The production is thick with fat synth chords and precise but flowing drum beats. There’s a hint of 80s Euro-pop in it, too, reminiscent of Animotion or any of the other flash-in-the-pan groups of the time. There’s also a cheeky, wicked vibe to the song, an unabashed brazenness that indicates a confident and sure sexuality. It has a highly appealing genuine feel to it, not as calculated or stagey as in previous tracks like “Woo Hoo.” The same sexuality gets deliciously playful on the bouncy “Red Hot Kinda Love,” a post-modern disco-fire of a song that borrows Andrea True’s cooing and marries it to the best collaboration Donna Summer and Georgio Moroder never did.

Feeling like a natural woman.

In fact, Christina smirks quite a bit during the album, most noticeably on the deceptively-sweet Lily Allen-esque slow-banger “Circles,” where she tells haters to “Spin around in circles on my middle finger.” On the 90s hip-pop groove of “Shut Up,” she tells someone to “Shut the f**k up” with an intentional bleep of the word. Meanwhile, a repeating riff of the word “You” pings back and forth between left and right as if she’s pointing her finger like a gun and firing (pew! pew! pew!). “Army of Me,” which sadly is NOT a remake of the Björk classic (because that would be way too awesome for the mortal world), is reminiscent of her 2003 single “Fighter,” an unrepentant anthem of strength.

The ballads manage to be earnest without being treacly for the most part, and Christina doesn’t lean on the most powerful reaches of her voice to get the sentiment across. “Blank Page,” perhaps one of her most melodic ballads, in fact gains its power through the sections where Christina lowers her voice to a quiet, plaintive melody to match the piano bedrock of the song. It’s a collaboration with Sia, who co-wrote some of the best tracks on Bionic (“You Lost Me,” “I Am”). Most of the ballads revolve around words and expression, either expression of self (“Sing For Me”) or the use of words as a weapon (“Empty Words”). “Sing For Me,” with its slightly dirty drum foundation and climactic last-minute key change is destined to be her next “Beautiful.”

Truly outrageous.

For all the album’s strengths, there are a few disappointments. The middle of the album is brought down by two of the weaker tracks on the album, “Cease Fire” and “Around The World.” Both of them sound as if they were rescued from Rihanna‘s/Nicki Minaj‘s discard pile down to the fake accent on the lyrics, and they seem like a slight waste of Christina’s vocal abilities, considering the massive gulf between her voice and that of Rihanna or Minaj. Even weaker is “Just A Fool,” a duet with Christina’s The Voice co-judge Blake Shelton that seems like a cheap afterthought. In fact, it’s the final track on the standard version of the album. The opening too closely mimics the far superior “You And I” by Lady GaGa, and the song never really gains a true identity of its own. While Christina and Shelton’s voices harmonize well, their styles couldn’t be further apart. It may have good intentions, but it’s jarring just the same.

Throughout the album, however, no matter the track, Christina maintains a strong sense of identity and powerful confidence. Much like she has refused to feel ashamed of her curves, she refuses to accept limits on her voice or herself. In almost all ways, it feels like she’s finally come into full flower, opening herself up as never before (and not just because she’s nude on the album cover). I remarked to a friend that with her extra curves, Christina seems more organic and natural, like this is the shape she’s supposed to have. Likewise, Lotus is the kind of music she’s more suited to making. The Belt is back, and this time she’s staying.

Rating: 7 out of 10 / B

JOHNNY M is a frequent FBOTU contributor and a delicate flower. <a href="; title="imageimage

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