Back with ‘Bionic,’ Aguilera’s not quite herself
Christina Aguilera wasn’t bluffing on the first single from her new album. “Not Myself Tonight,’’ a thumping dance-floor declaration of independence, suggested we’d no longer recognize this pop tart who’s as platinum as her record sales.
What she didn’t reveal is that she’s really not herself at all on “Bionic,’’ her fourth studio release out tomorrow. “I’m Every Woman’’ might have been more apt, since you can tick off her list of influences, starting with the Lady Gaga-like album cover. For a record that’s supposed to trumpet Aguilera’s return after a four-year recording hiatus, she feels largely absent from her own homecoming party.
It’s not entirely her fault. The Top 40 landscape has shifted considerably since Aguilera’s last record, 2006’s R&B-stoked “Back to Basics.’’ Gaga, Beyoncé, Fergie, and M.I.A. orbit the pop cosmos now, and it’s sadly apparent that Aguilera took note of that for “Bionic.’’
Let’s not overstate Aguilera’s artistry. It’s been easy to admire that big voice and soulful emotional range, but her creative vision has been harder to discern. She’s never adhered to a particular style, but she at least came across as a refreshing alternative to her peers. Hey, look, it’s Britney Spears — but she can sing, and with feeling! With “Bionic,’’ though, Aguilera sounds like she’s following the pack instead of leading it.
The opening title track trades on M.I.A.’s military-raid synth beats; coincidentally, the Sri Lankan British rapper makes a cameo on “Elastic Love,’’ the album’s highlight precisely because it doesn’t try too hard. It’s unabashed electro-pop, as sticky as Juicy Fruit and just as tasty.
Aguilera gets props for keeping good company on “Bionic,’’ enlisting some of dance rock’s finest (Ladytron, Le Tigre, Tricky) to bolster her credibility. Except that Aguilera gets lost in the shuffle, coming off as sonic wallpaper while the others hijack the music. The roller-disco party anthem “My Girls’’ lassoes a gaggle of fierce ladies you’d rather hear without Aguilera: Le Tigre, Sia, and Peaches, all of whom sound like they’re simply picking up a paycheck.
The problem is that, similar to Beyoncé’s “I Am . . . Sasha Fierce,’’ “Bionic’’ is charged with two disparate missions: Here’s the tough girl Aguilera you’ve never heard (the Spears ripoff “Vanity’’), and here’s the sensitive crooner you loved on self-empowerment ballads such as “Beautiful’’ (“Lift Me Up’’ is ostensibly its sequel).
The album plays fast and loose with Aguilera’s sexuality. She’s presented more than ever as a sex kitten. “Morning Dessert’’ probably does not entail egg whites and wheat toast; likewise, “Sex for Breakfast,’’ an R&B slow jam, feels beneath her. How fitting.
So much of “Bionic’’ belies its title, from toothless club cuts (“Woohoo’’) to earnest love songs (“All I Need,’’ which at least features her most moving vocal). Granted, no one considers Aguilera a visionary, but it’s reasonable to expect more from her than this throwaway chorus from “I Hate Boys’’: “I hate boys/ But boys love me/ I think they suck/ And my friends agree.’’
James Reed can be reached at email@example.com.