Christina Aguilera Exults in Her Voice on ‘Liberation’

Posted June 13, 2018 6:44 p.m. EDT

Nothing less than high drama suits Christina Aguilera’s voice. She can be brassy, tearful, sultry, gritty, breathy, sweet or furious. She can belt and she can tease; she can aim a note as directly as a missile or turn its trajectory into an aerobatic spiral of leaping, quivering, scalloping melismas. Her voice is not an instrument for making modest statements; it’s about peaks of self-affirmation, indescribable sensual pleasures, steely counterattacks and abysses of sorrow.

She unleashes all of them on “Liberation" (RCA), her eighth studio album and her first since “Lotus” in 2012. It’s a return to the pop fray after multiple seasons as a coach on “The Voice” that made sure viewers didn’t forget her vocal mastery. It’s an album of extreme ups and downs: wretched and ecstatic, calculating and abandoned, seesawing between angst and raunch. Heard as a whole — unlikely as that might be in 2018 — it’s an album that moves through trauma, lust, resistance, obsession and, finally, lasting love. Her extravagant vocal flourishes connect with sweeping emotion.

Top 10 pop — the realm where Aguilera has repeatedly proved herself since “Genie in a Bottle” in 1999 — doesn’t always reward big, natural voices as it once did, especially for singers who aren’t named Adele. Auto-Tune; hip-hop; and the nasal, narcotized, dispirited voices of SoundCloud rap compete with, and often out-stream, the kind of soulful vocal storytelling that would have had Aguilera flourishing in previous eras. A voice like hers has become something like a turntable: a vintage prize, a modern novelty, a niche taste.

Aguilera has adapted. Collaborating with stoned-sounding, scratchy-voiced rappers in electronic soundscapes is one of her necessary skills. “Accelerate,” produced by Kanye West and associates, was released as a single in advance of “Liberation”; with Ty Dolla Sign and 2 Chainz leering at her over synthesizers, she tremulously sings, “Fill me up, that’s what I need.” Over a slow, slinky, trap-meets-dancehall groove in “Right Moves,” she coos just above a whisper about how someone can “love me till I can’t think straight,” abetted by two Jamaican dancehall performers, Keida and Shenseea. And in the nearly single-entendre “Pipe,” set to narrow-bandwidth trap drum sounds and keyboard tones, Aguilera is tremulous and accommodating with the rapper XNDA, sing-songing up and down a few notes: “Got a couple secrets that I’d really like to see if you could keep.”

“Liberation” presents itself as a new disclosure. Its cover photo is a headshot of Aguilera seemingly without makeup that reveals — shock! — freckles. Actually, the album reworks ideas that Aguilera has brandished at least since her 2002 album, “Stripped”: that women can be combative, sexy, compassionate, imperfect, sometimes self-doubting, sometimes victimized, sometimes even self-destructive, but still strong and worthy.

Now she delivers those convictions as an adult. Aguilera, 37, has been married and divorced. She is a mother of two and a seasoned celebrity who has been a national presence since her debut on the early-1990s version of “The Mickey Mouse Club” alongside Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake. She shares “Fall in Line” with another former child star, Demi Lovato; it’s a defiant dirge addressed directly to “little girls” and it insists, “You do not owe them your body and your soul.” A hard-rock guitar riff backs Aguilera’s roughest Janis Joplin-style growls in “Sick of Sittin’,” which rails about the aftermath of money and fame: “I’ve been working too hard not to be living.”

She also flaunts her experience more playfully. In “Like I Do” — produced by Anderson.Paak with a flutelike loop as a hook — Aguilera responds to come-ons from the rapper GoldLink by singing, “Boy you already know my story/You were raised in all my glory” and, later, “Can’t play me, boy, I’m out of your league.” But she still flirts with him: “Just might have to show you/show you what I do.”

The album’s seduction songs do their job. But its doleful ones leap out. In “Masochist,” the chords are major and cushiony, but the lyrics are about compulsively returning to an abusive relationship: “Loving you is so bad for me/But I just can’t walk away.” The slow, blipping electronic track “Deserve,” written by the chronically despairing Julia Michaels and the producer MNEK (Uzoechi Emenike), zeros in on how the narrator sabotages her own romance. “Maria” — Aguilera’s middle name — places her in utter existential misery, almost sobbing in her bluesy lower range: “How did I get so low?/When did I turn so cold?” And “Twice,” written by Kirby Lauryen, mournfully ponders sin, forgiveness and redemption, with only a gospelly piano accompanying a choir of Aguilera’s vocals.

Like a rom-com, the album closes with something like a wedding: “Unless It’s With You,” another song with a gospel foundation. It’s a backhanded proposal with an understated, ambivalent buildup musing on independence, uncertainty and “fairy tales of fake happiness.” But after her decision is made — “I don’t wanna get married/Unless it’s with you” — Aguilera’s voice leaps free, exulting in its range, its forcefulness, its grain and its melodic curlicues. She eases back just as the song ends, but she’s made her point: Only her own choices will contain her.