While the boulder on Xtina’s shoulder is exhausting at times, Lotus (out today, ) is indeed a return to form. The four-time Grammy winner pulls together a cohesive set of songs that showcase her powerful pipes and remind us why she once shared the top rung of the pop ladder with Beyonce, Pink and Britney.
Christina back-pedals from the polarizing experimentalism of Bionic this time around. Lotus is by no means boring, but it does sound safe by comparison. There are a few blinding dance-pop gems, there’s a sprinkling of lite-rock and even the occasional urban influence. But the emphasis is overwhelmingly on ballads. Team Aguilera knows that the big-lunged diva’s voice sets her apart from the competition, and they’ve taken every opportunity to show it off. With an instrument as powerful as this, there is an understandable temptation to over-sing but — with a couple of notable exceptions — the Voice judge manages to keep it under control. As a result, she turns in some of the best vocal performances of her career. It’s just a shame Xtina hasn’t realized that she can demonstrate her vocal superiority just as effectively by singing uptempo tunes, because the dance tracks on Lotus are great.
Everyone from Lady Gaga to Marina & The Diamonds has raved about “Your Body,” and it’s hard to disagree. The Max Martin/Shellback-produced anthem is an adrenalin-charged shot of dance-pop that proves once and for all that Christina can fit into the 2012 pop soundscape. However, the fact that it underperformed on the charts is alarming. The only other song with similar breakout hit potential is the other Max Martin/Shellback contribution, “Let There Be Love” — an unbearably cute pop song that sweeps Xtina away on a wave of synths to unfamiliar Eurodance territory. It turns out to be the perfect destination for the diva’s powerhouse pipes. We think it should be released as the next single, but the double punch of Swedish-helmed pop would wildly misrepresent the album. The rest of Xtina’s Lotus petals couldn’t be more different.
Take the two collaborations with her fellow judges on The Voice: Initially the idea struck us as a rather inelegant publicity stunt, but it speaks volumes for Christina’s versatility that she’s equally at home sharing vocals with Cee Lo Green on the old-school soul of “Make The World Move” as she is belting out a gorgeous country ballad with Blake Shelton. It’s something of a shock that the latter is vastly better. While the Cee Lo track sounds like a throwback to Back To Basics, Xtina could give Kelly Clarkson a run for her money as pop’s crossover country queen with “Just A Fool.” This is a soaring lighters-in-the-air love song of the highest caliber.
Another standout is “Sing For Me.” The reflective ballad could well document the months Christina spent alone in her room singing “Beautiful” to herself after Bionic dropped. Here she delivers a nuclear-powered vocal, singing, “When I open my mouth, my whole heart comes out.” On the evidence of this, it’s hard to disagree. The Step-produced screamer walks the fine line between exploring her hurt over the Bionic backlash and the woe-is-me territory she occasionally veers into on some of the album’s worst tracks. If nothing else, “Sing For Me” proves Christina is still the Gabby Douglas of vocal gymnastics. There are runs on this song that Mariah would consider over-the-top, but, in this context, they work.
The Sia-penned “Blank Page” reveals that Xtina is indeed capable of toning it down when the material calls for it. Given the Sia’s singer-songwriter’s alternative leanings, it’s surprising that this is the album’s most straightforward ballad. It harks back to the torch songs of old — “Blank Page” sounds like it could have just as easily been recorded in 1972 — with its yearning lyrics and sparse production courtesy of Chris Braide. The pretty plea for love might be too different for Top 40 radio, but it deserves to reach a wider audience.
Alex Da Kid is Christina’s most frequent collaborator on Lotus, yet his contributions are more miss than hit. “Cease Fire” is a booming electronic/dub-step-infused mid-tempo mess. Think a Ryan Tedder ballad (Kelly Clarkson’s “Already Gone,” Beyonce’s “Halo,” etc) over white noise. It takes a few listens to click, but the chorus eventually seeps through the challenging production. Elsewhere, “Best Of Me” is a blatant swipe at her critics. “I feel the weight of your hate, I still bleed, my heart aches,” she laments. It lacks the charm of “Sing For Me,”coming across as a pity party set to music.
While underwhelming, those contributions are Grammy-worthy gems in comparison to Da Kid’s third Lotus production. Remember when people used to flip you the bird at school and say something witty like “rotate” before flicking their hair and walking off? Well, Christina has devoted an entire song to that classy insult. “Spin around on circles on my middle finger,” demands the dirrty diva over a trippy smattering of industrial beats and drums. It sounds like fluffiest Nine Inch Nails song ever recorded. Let’s be honest: The song is a total trainwreck, but there’s something amusing about Xtina putting her haters in their place. Add “Circles” to your WTF Christina? playlist between “Sex For Breakfast” and “Vanity.”
The rest of Lotus is best described as quality filler. “Army Of Me” wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Bionic. Christina openly refers to it as “Fighter 2.0,” and she’s not exaggerating. “It’s time you had a taste of losing, it’s time the tables turned around” is typical of the lyrical terrain. She goes hard on the vocal of what can best be described as a sparse electro-mantra. It doesn’t have the hook of the song it’s paying homage to, but it’s a quirky addition to album.
“Red Hot Kinda Love” is one of the few moments when Christina abandons her I’m back, bitches! agenda and just has fun. She coos over a bass-heavy track to the man of her dreams, revisiting her love for retro music – think of this as the album’s “Ain’t No Other Man.” Meanwhile, “Around The World” is another inoffensive adventure that scores extra points for quoting lyrics from “Lady Marmalade.” It just lacks the big pop hook need to wreak havoc on the charts.
As with Bionic, Christina relegates some of her best songs to bonus status. “Light Up The Sky” is Alex Da Kid’s best contribution to the album. It begins as a simple piano ballad before exploding into a multi-layered lung-buster. The song retains a pop sensibility that some of the other tracks lack, and will no doubt appeal to fans of ballad-mode Xtina. “Shut Up” is a slightly abrasive and literal response to the haters but, unlike “Circles,” still has an incredibly catchy chorus. Someone like Pink could probably get away with releasing “Shut Up” as a single. Alas, it’s probably destined for cult status with Christina.
Overall, Aguilera puts tried and tested methods ahead of innovation on Lotus and delivers tracks that should win back fans who were put off by the Bionic era. Our only concern is the lack of obvious hits. In a Katy Perry world where a fifth or sixth single can still top the charts, a pop album seemingly needs to be a veritable greatest hits collection. That said, nothing here really stands out past the Max Martin/Shellback tracks. Perhaps one of the ballads will catch fire on radio and help rack up decent sales.
At the very least, Lotus hopefully completes the rehabilitation of Christina Aguilera. She deals with the Bionic backlash extensively in the lyrics and puts the haters in their place. (Get ready to spin, baby!) Surely it’s time to leave the drama in the past and welcome back one of the most-loved divas of the early 2000s?
The Best Song Wasn’t The Single: “Let There Be Love” screams hit. “Just A Fool” could appeal to country fans, while “Blank Page” reeks of quality.
Guilty Pleasure: It’s hard to go past “Shut Up,” which gets the point across without resorting to playground taunts.
Best Listened To: Before jumping on Twitter to address your army of haters.
Idolator Rating: 3.5/5
— Mike Wass