What do you do when you’re a pop diva whose last album was rejected by fans, at least by the standards of megastardom? You redirect your vision, redefine your personality, or find a mentor who can do either/or, quick. Unfortunately, Christina Aguilera’s never had a personality, not as a singer anyway: an A-lister with no backstory, a diva with nothing to rebel against, and too hellacious to be a mere fuck fantasy, she’s spent her whole career trapped on the same level as “vocalists” she could sing rings around. She slipped in the back door replicating Britney Spears’ carefully crafted sexbot and wound up sharing the remake of “Lady Marmalade” with the likes of Lil’ Kim, Pink and Mya, even though Christina’s probably one of the few singers of her generation who could do serious damage to Patti Labelle’s original take.
Her stint as celebrity judge on The Voice and her blockbuster Maroon 5 collab “Moves Like Jagger” rescued her from having to join Britney in pop-culture exile. Now, however, with her next album, she’s expected to make some sort of a statement. Facing the prospect of redefining something that lacks definition, Aguilera’s unwisely decided to go everywhere at once, and Lotus is a Whitman’s Sampler of mediocrity drowning in phony come-ons, goofy genre exercises, and misguided attempts at female empowerment supposedly inspired by her recent divorce. Right from the intro, she’s using Autotune – Christina! Autotune! – not because she suddenly needs it, but because it’ll get her on the radio. Then she drops it to announce, “I embrace my reflection, embrace the woman I’ve become / The unbreakable lotus in me / I’ve now set free.” Uh oh.
It’s her professionalism that saves Lotus, barely, from the diva graveyard; like all the greatest vocalists, she always gives 100 percent, even when she probably shouldn’t. She gamely wears the silly “Red Hot Kinda Love,” “Shut Up” and “Let There Be Love” like a bad party dress, and the result’s more fun than it should be, but the rock move (“Circles”) and the country crossover (“Just a Fool,” a duet with Blake Shelton) are supposed to be serious, just like the big sweeping ballads “Blank Page” and “Sing For Me” and the bff anthem “Light Up the Sky,” and she’s not bringing anything to them but a four-octave spinto soprano they don’t deserve. The only club track that doesn’t sound like a Rihanna reject is the Cee-Lo duet “Make The World Move”; it feels like it was accidentally mixed in from a separate playlist. And thank God for that. Honey, when will you use that force of nature to tell us who you are?
Impact: 50. It’s acceptable background music, but that’s all it is.
Innovation: 48. Recorded at home with a slew of unproven producers. Bad move.
Integrity: 45. Her big divorce ballad is about being a “Blank Page.” There you go.
Like Blur’s breakthrough 1998 album 13, Clinic’s Free Reign is the sound of Brit-rock filtered through the drone of EDM; Blur enlisted William Orbit as producer, while Clinic found Daniel Lopatin (festival goers know him as Oneohtrix Point Never) to tweak their indie-garage oddities into slick and ambient shapes. As a result, both albums are kind of a downer, although lead singer Ade Blackburn’s probably not sifting through the pieces of a broken, high-profile romance like Damon Albarn was. But while Blur’s late-night soundtrack to loneliness was a jumpy affair, full of sharp right turns, Clinic’s is more staid, using the electronics not to explore the despair but rather to celebrate the unease. For a band that started out defiantly tossing out bizarre chord changes, strange sounds, and weird time signatures in order to confound Britpop expectations, this is a statement: mellow, but by no means easy listening.
This also means that, even at a relatively paltry 40 minutes, Reign skirts boredom, especially since Clinic doesn’t always know which moods are worth chasing down the rabbit hole and which aren’t. “For The Season” is a single-length air (with saxophone!) which gently insinuates its fluffy melody just long enough to reveal the dark shadows lingering behind it, but the stylized boom-bap of “Miss You” isn’t menacing enough — as Clinic singles used to be without fail — to justify five-and-a-half minutes of “Ah, ah. Ah, aaah ah ah ah.” Likewise, interesting ideas like the atonal “Cosmic Radiation,” which comes very close to free jazz, don’t stick around to make an impression. “King Kong” will please fans who came in around Walking With Thee, but it’s outnumbered.
The slightly dirty brown-bag acid of the group’s seventh album is nevertheless fascinating in small, pardon the pun, doses; unlike Blur’s bid for the chill room, it doesn’t go to epic lengths to drive its point home. Lopatin’s known for creating modern-sounding ambient with ancient instruments, so while there’s not a lot of fuzz-tone guitar, letting the band’s trademark garage organ co-exist along with the Lopatin’s more modern ideas creates an interesting (if artificial) blend of analog and digital drone. Unfortunately, only “You” seems to have an idea of where to take the repetitive white noise; you can’t help but feel like the groups’ famous edges have been rounded off everywhere else. And while they understand atmosphere well enough to handle the change, their usual dark emotional thrust can get lost in all the echo and pulse. Free Reign, like the pun of its title, is too inscrutable to be clever.
Impact: 72. The mood grows on you for sure, but it reveals nothing.
Innovation: 77. They’ve succeeded in reinventing themselves as something not all that useful.
Integrity: 70. Still menacing, not as weird.