Christina Aguilera does not hold back on her versatility in regards to the diverse list of influences that drives the singer to create an outstandingly eclectic catalog of music. From the pop, latin, and urban influences of her self-titled debut record and Stripped, to the jazz leverage on Back To Basics, and Electronic inspired Bionic, her discography cannot be characterized as unchanging. It’s forever in a state of metamorphose, at times schizophrenic, but always deliverable and distinctly pipelined by the unmistakable voice and distinct amount of creative input that clearly shines on each release by the RCA signed artist. Lotus continues down this walkway by exploring a clean 2012 dance basis, while occasionally drifting into various sub-pop territories, but perceives itself to be the most approachable pop record since her 1999 debut.
Beginning Aguilera’s release is an Alex Da Kid introduction aptly titled “Lotus”. At three minutes and eighteen seconds, the song plays more like a full song with lyrical circles. Autotuned vocals demand full attention as they blend perfectly with programmed rhythmic sections and jubilant synth instrumentation, exacting the listener with triumphant vibes as lyrics flow through looped callouts, harmonic melodies and a proclamation of a re-birthed creature, that’s been submerged in pain, broken, but manages to stand strong.”Emergency, heart beat increases. Lotus, rise up. Rise, this is the beginning.” It’s demonstration of certainty makes for the intro to be a powerful opener. It surges through repetition, but evolves slowly through it’s production.
Unfortunately, technical problems start on the first track of the record and run untamed through almost all songs on the standard and deluxe releases. Distortion and an unbalanced low end makes itself ironically clear at the first bass note and conflicts with the entire mix, making itself omni-directionally known and drowning the mid and high frequencies out, or forcing them to be compressed or automated downward so lower frequencies can take complete control. It’s a wretched mishap that we’ve seen earlier this year through Madonna’s MDNA mixing and mastering (our review is here), however, the Madonna record had moments in songs where breathing was possible, whereas Lotus does not.
In fact, Lotus’ dynamic range as a whole sits at a repulsive and repellant 4dB of range. Only “Your Body” and and “Blank Page” allow for the broader confines, but even they’re only averaged out at 6dB between the loudest and softest segments of their durations. To put this into perspective, the Red Hot Chili Peppers infamous brick walled Californication sits at an average dynamic range of 5dB. Christina’s record is crushed more and to make it worse, its limiting and compression techniques are extremely noticeable.
For example, the country-pop ballad “Just A Fool (Featuring Blake Shelton)” is audibly distorted on both singers vocal recordings. Even the main guitar line, though equalized to shine in the high-mid frequencies is unmistakable in its strain to enforce pronounced loudness to the point of an unnatural sound. Any time Christina or Blake attempt to belt out a note or enunciate an affliction of vocal skill, it’s hindered and tarnished through an irresponsible rate compression that forces their recorded takes to become atypical in sound and freakishly consistent in sound level. Where “Just A Fool” could have been a successful collaboration in cross-genre exploration, it fails completely because of the final product.
The facet that makes Lotus so disheartening is that none of this is at fault because of the artists involved. Christina Aguilera is one of the undisputed voices of this generation and her collaborators are critically acclaimed, diverse, and positively renowned. Whether it’s at the hands of Manny Marroquin, Chris Galland, and Delbert Bowers who mixed the record at Larrabee Sound Studios or mastering engineer Brian Gardner over at Bernie Grundman Mastering is up for debate. Album mastering can only be as good as the headroom and original range given by the mixing engineers, but things to keep in mind are also demand from RCA Records in gauge of how they’d like to present this pop record to the general public.
Something interesting to keep in mind is the disappointment of Aguilera’s previous record Bionic. It’s lead single “Not Myself Tonight” didn’t even crack the top 20 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart and all other singles and aspects of the era fell by the wayside. A canceled tour followed, a box office failure alongside Cher for Xtina’s acting debut in Burlesque. Also, combined with constant false accusations of snubbing Justin Bieber and being rude to The Wanted on NBC’s The Voice, quite a negative firestorm surrounding Christina as a whole seemed to be negatively impacting almost every aspect of her career, and unjustly so. Because of this, it’s not unlikely RCA wanted to release a record jam packed with the most barbarically safe, radio friendly sound, and unknowingly so, forced the project toward maximum sound limits.
Songs “Sing For Me” and deluxe edition track “Light Up The Sky” fall hard to these technical complications, but are somewhat saved through the sly use of reverberation so that the vulnerability and emotional viewpoints elate and shine, though they still barely hang on because the reverb is also highly compressed.
The truth for the sonic degradation, however, is behind closed doors and what can be focused on about Lotus is the positive song craft and artistic skill. Recent songwriting collaborator and all-of-the-sudden go to songwriter Sia partners with Aguilera again on this project with “Blank Page”. Where Rihanna recently recorded “Diamonds” and Ne-Yo released “Let Me Love You,” both of their records are undefined in that the vocal structure and melody sound like Sia recordings sung through another voice. Christina has a way of collaborating with the Australia based artist in a way that allows a combination of emotional Sia-isms with a unique vocal presence and articulation that strays from Sia and is undisputedly all Christina.
“Let There Be Love” becomes a double-edged sword. It’s the song with the least amount of dynamic range (averaged at a disgusting 3dB), but is the most accessible track that combines the most top 40 influences of dance music, simple percussion, and easily accessible melodic progressions. The Max Martin and Shellback produced track urges standardly sexualized lyrics (“I wanna tell you my secret with just the sound of my breathing”), confidently repeated and quantized background vocals, and an explosive chorus. It all builds to piece together a track that could easily be placed alongside pop tracks on a Nicki Minaj record or David Guetta feature track. The lead single off of Lotus, “Your Body” falls in line with the attention grabbing instant brought on with “Let There Be Love” in that it’s simple, but effective.
Speaking of Nicki Minaj, she’s the only thing missing from the Reggae and Jamaican tinged “Around The World”. The entire track desperately pleas for a feature from the successful it-girl, but manages to successfully flow on its own with its complicated snare track and shout outs to previous Xtina hit ”Lady Marmalade”.
“Circles” and “Shut Up” aggressively confront humanistic negativity, while “Army of Me” and “Cease Fire” contrast entirely as self-confident anthems that continue what began on the Stripped album with “Fighter”.
Truth is, it’s hard for Christina Aguilera to win. If she’s not being bashed for her wrongly perceived personality, there’s a side of supporters that dislike when she strongly demonstrates her vocal ability and when she tries to tone it down (as shown through the Bionic era) others will complain about that as well. There’s a miserable amount of different standards that powerhouse vocalists must attempt to jump through and even when most are avoided, there’s another complaint waiting to be thrown their direction. Through problematic behind the scenes issues regarding the mixing of Lotus, it’s a great record otherwise. Lyrically, vocally, collaborators, producers and songwriting teams lend themselves as strong allies to the ever growing discography of the singer’s career and Christina takes a fighting stance, standing tall on her own, and becoming the epitome of what a Lotus is: indestructible.