On the cover of Back to Basics (RCA), her third album, Christina Aguilera poses as Jean Harlow, the 1930s movie sexpot. It's a classy retro look, a sign that the 25-year-old diva is ready for her close-up as the leading lady of the teen brat pack (Britney Spears, Pink, Beyonce) that emerged in the late '90s.
The double-CD is designed as a response to those naysayers who saw her previous album, the 2002 release Stripped, as the work of a Disney singer-turned-nympho. Indeed, it was difficult to think of her leave-nothing-to-the-imagination videos from that era ("Dirrty," "Lady Marmalade") as anything more than the musical soundtracks for a high-priced call girl. Aguilera's always had a voice more robust than any of her teen-princess peers, but she cultivated a sleazy image that undercut her vocal chops. It's difficult to take anyone seriously when she's writhing around in leather chaps.
Back to Basics is nominally less strident and quite a bit more ambitious than anything Aguilera has attempted before. It demands not just our attention, but our sympathy.
It's divided into two distinct discs. The first is overseen by veteran hip-hop producer DJ Premier, who carves out a club-oriented, sample-driven backdrop for Aguilera's vocals. The second, produced by songwriter Linda Perry, places the singer in retro settings with traditional instrumentation that evoke 1930s speakeasies, '40s dance ballrooms and '50s jazz lounges.
Like Stripped, the new album has its share of stirring musical moments. Aguilera's range is formidable, her ability to powerhouse a song into the stratosphere undeniable. She never met a chorus she couldn't belt into the rafters, or turn into an Olympian feat of acrobatics. It's a skill that can be both impressive and annoying, sometimes within the same song.
For a singer who often mentions classic vocalists such as Etta James and Aretha Franklin as an inspiration, it's dispiriting to realize how little Aguilera seems to have learned from them. She rarely exhibits the ability to dig beyond a song's surface, to dial down a performance and revel in nuance and subtlety.
The sole exception occurs on the retro disc, "Save Me From Myself," which she sings in a near-whisper. It's the one moment where a hint of genuine vulnerability appears beneath that steely Xtina exterior.
Otherwise, the Perry disc prompts unflattering comparisons to the singers she's emulating. The Andrews Sisters-like "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" high jinks of "Candyman," complete with embarrassing lyrics, is the nadir. But the blues ballad "I Got Trouble," produced to sound like a dusty 78-rpm recording; the saucy, jazz-inflected come-ons of "Nasty Naughty Boy"; and the gratingly over-sung power ballad "Hurt" play like parodies of the real thing.
Much more impressive is the club-oriented disc. "Makes Me Wanna Pray" employs Steve Winwood to reprise the romping keyboard riffs of Traffic's "Glad" in service of a gospel-soul rave-up. "Understand" is the type of ballad that invites realistic comparisons to classic soul sides by Aguilera's '60s heroes. And "Mother" is another wrenching confessional about abusive relationships that plays like a sequel to the Stripped song "I'm OK."
But Aguilera's vocal prowess can't help but sound like so much preening, given her subject matter. We learn that she's found true love, and that she's still defensive about her image. "Still Dirrty" launches a pre-emptive strike against those who would say that she's softened her image in response to criticism of her last album. "Here to Stay" digs in her stiletto heels against those who have made her life as a pop superstar so difficult. And "Thank You" offers five minutes of fan testimonials that suggest Aguilera's music has done everything from inspiring the soldiers in Iraq to preventing some of her fans from committing suicide.
So instead of a coming-of-age album, we get another put-upon celebrity demanding our sympathy and extolling her contributions to world peace. Is it any wonder she over-sings?
Greg Kot writes for the Chicago Tribune.