Christina Aguilera realized early on she couldn’t sustain a career by coasting on her multi-octave range or sticking with wholesome teen-pop. As a result, she’s spent the last decade or so trying on different musical personas: traditional R&B belter, streetwise hip-pop chick, tough rocker, and edgy electro sex-kitten. While not all of these reinventions were successful, her most successful songs tended to possess personality, vulnerability, and a defiant disregard for convention.
Lotus, Aguilera’s fifth album of new material, often disappoints on all three counts. The relative indifference to her last album, 2010’s unfairly maligned Bionic, seems to have pushed her into making an album that isn’t as outré or risky. And so in spite of a recurring theme of rebirth, Lotus often plays it safe. “Around The World” and “Cease Fire” sound like Rihanna rejects, while “Let There Be Love” is faceless Top 40 EDM. On other songs, gimmickry supersedes sincerity. In spite of some lovely harmonies from her The Voice co-judge Blake Shelton, “Just A Fool” is schmaltzy, string-blasted heartbreak. “Circles” is even more frustrating. It’s bitter ’90s alt-rock crossed with M.I.A.’s antagonistic attitude; it should be an angry kiss-off. Instead, cringe-inducing lyrics (e.g., “Spin around in circles on my middle finger”) sap its ire.
Lotus is far more successful when Aguilera drops the empty platitudes and embraces her individuality. Her playful side elevates the rousing “Army Of Me”—an empowered dance-floor anthem where she plays the role of sassy techno diva, crying repeatedly, “We’re gonna rise up!”—and the dancehall-tinged, vibrant party jam “Red Hot Kinda Love.” Better still is “Make The World Move,” a dizzying duet with another fellow Voice judge, Cee Lo Green; the song’s positive lyrics and Technicolor-soul beats are downright inspiring.
But Lotus’ best songs convey real-talk intimacy. “Blank Page” (which was co-written with Sia) and “Sing For Me” are minimal piano ballads on which Aguilera discusses working through regret and reclaiming her sense of self, respectively. The spare music lets her still-powerful voice dominate, and her impassioned delivery conveys how meaningful these songs are to her. It makes sense that the rest of Lotus doesn’t connect on such a primal level. Aguilera has always been an unstoppable force when she pours her heart and soul into her music—and not as adept at dumbing down her voice or lyrics for the sake of lightweight tunes or prevailing trends. Unfortunately, by focusing on the latter route, Lotus becomes disappointingly faceless.