Christina Aguilera is her own worst enemy. Judging by her recent interviews, in which she calls her 2010 flop, Bionic, "ahead of its time," and her early work "more daring" than that of her teeny-bopper compatriots, the best promo she could do for her new album, Lotus, is none at all. The admirably forward-thinking, if not forward-sounding, Bionic got a bum rap, but it should be people like me who say it, not her.
Picking up where that album left off, Lotus opens with an electro-pop intro that samples M83 and features an Auto-Tuned Aguilera proclaiming her latest manifesto: "I sing for freedom and for love/I look at my reflection/Embrace the woman I've become/The unbreakable lotus in me, I now set free." But in an obviously calculated move, the rest of Lotus seems designed to appeal more to fans of her previous studio albums, and its lead single, "Your Body," was co-produced by Max Martin, the Swedish knob-twirler at the helm of all of those hits by Aguilera's fellow former Mouseketeers she inexplicably deemed less daring than "Genie in a Bottle."
If a pop song is only as strong as its hook, though, then "Your Body" is a heavyweight, allowing Aguilera to tear it up during the chorus, and it features the kind of provocative single entendres we've come to expect from the singer, even as her tatas and bits are strategically concealed on the album's cover (which, for the record, looks like an ad for a feminine hygiene product): "We're moving faster than slow/If you don't know where to go/I'll finish off on my own." But if Aguilera and her label really wanted to ensure her comeback, an even safer bet would have been the album's other Martin-assisted track, "Let There Be Love," a virtual hybrid of recent club bangers by Rihanna, Britney, Katy, and Ke$ha.
Aguilera has an infamous mean streak, and it often comes out in her songwriting, which is partly what sunk Bionic. But with the exception of the abrasive "Circles," on which she tells her foes to "spin around in circles on my middle finger," Lotus largely checks the attitude at the door and focuses instead on self-empowerment anthems like the dramatic and defiant "Best of Me." The rest of the album's slow songs don't fare quite as well: The pretty vocal runs at the end of "Sing for Me" aren't enough to save the otherwise too-bombastic and rote power ballad, while "Just a Fool," an out-of-place country-pop duet with Blake Shelton, feels like a cheap cash-in. (For those keeping count, Aguilera has now recorded duets with all of her fellow judges on The Voice.)
By virtue of the fact that Lotus is Aguilera's shortest album since her debut, it boasts less filler, but also fewer obvious standouts. Produced by Lucas Secon, who scored a hit of his own in the '90s with the quirky "Lucas with the Lid Off," "Red Hot Kinda Love" effectively combines an old-school hip-hop loop, vocal samples, a catchy pre-chorus, and an even catchier chorus. The album's biggest surprise, though, is the raga-infused "Cease Fire," which employs a marching band and a carefully constructed collage of background vocals to bolster Aguilera's vaguely apolitical and shockingly non-schmaltzy call for peace. More songs like these would have made for a truly great album, something that, the first half of the double-disc Back to Basics notwithstanding, has thus far eluded her.