So, welcome then to Christina Aguilera v3. She’s been a fluffy pop poppet in her Genie In A Bottle days, a Dirrty, leather chaps clad girl in her Stripped period, and now she returns all respectable and married and talking about channeling the spirit of Ella Fitzgerald and Etta James. Confused? You will be…
For Back To Basics marks Christina’s attempt at being a ‘serious artist’. The press notes talk of her wanting to follow in the footsteps of such legends as Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin. While Aguilera does have an undeniably great voice, she’s pretty far from names such as that, especially when the material on this double album is so tepid.
Back To Basics is split into two discs, and like most double albums there’s a fair amount of filler here. However, most of the good material can be found on the first disc, produced by DJ Premier, such as the terrific brass-laden single Ain’t No Other Man – the best RnB/pop crossover hit since Beyonce’s Crazy In Love.
The ballad Understand is another highlight, with Aguilera’s impressive voice meshing well with the sample of ’60s soul diva Betty Harris. Mark Ronson pops up as well to produce one of the best tracks, the fresh and funky Slow Down Baby. It’s on songs like this that Aguilera is at her best, producing sharp and sassy infectious pop.
Yet the good points here just make the bad moments feel so much worse. The main fault is with some astonishingly self-indulgent and self-obsessed lyrics – if it’s not endless declarations of love to the new Mr Aguilera, it’s songs about Christina’s mum (Oh Mother), songs about how Christina’s not just a flash in the pan pop starlet (Here To Stay), or songs about how, although she’s married now, Christina still likes a good bit of sex (Still Dirrty).
The latter is particularly odd, attempting to come over like an unapologetic boast of being a proudly sexual woman, yet lyrics like “there’s some women out there who talk and stare, who never seem to let down their hair” appear to have a sub-text of ‘blimey, all these feminists just need a damn good rogering, don’t they lads?’.
Perhaps the most cringeworthy moment on the album is Thank You, a horrific dirge which is punctuated by answerphone messages from obsessive Aguilera fans telling the object of her affection how beautiful and inspirational she is, what a wonderful role model she is, and at one point, a serving soldier pops up to tell Christina how her voice has got him through some tough times (sadly, we can’t quite make out his army friends giggling in the background, nudging each other and whispering “yeah, right, it’s her voice…”).
It’s at such moments that Back To Basics seems like the biggest ego-fuelled act of folly since Michael Jackson decided it would be a good idea to float a gigantic statue of himself down the Thames. The second disc though is slightly more bearable. Here, Linda Perry takes over production duties, and she has an admirable stab at creating a retro ’40s atmosphere.
Candyman is quite fun, even though it is basically a rewrite of the old standard Boogie Woogie Company Boy. It’s worth nothing that the ghost of Madonna singing Hanky Panky does loom large. Although it’s difficult to imagine Ella Fitzgerald purring and growling her way through Naughty Nasty Boy, it does show off Aguilera’s voice to it’s very best advantage while she’s singing some X-rated lyrics (“I’m gonna give you a little taste of the sugar beneath my waist” indeed…). The blaring horn section only adds to the song’s simmering sexual tension.
It does soon descend into overblown ballad territory though – Hurt is an otherwise touching ode to Aguilera’s troubled relationship with her late father, but is hampered by a sugary-sweet string section that overwhelms the song. Other moments are screamingly camp, such as The Right Man – one of the seemingly endless tributes to her new husband – but it’s similarly overblown and cliched. Save Me From Myself is rather nice however, a quiet, fragile little ballad with Aguilera at last remembering to add some restraint to her vocals.
To be fair to Aguilera, it’s hard to imagine someone like Jessica Simpson or even her former rival Britney Spears attempting something as ambitious as Back To Basics. She should be given credit for that at least, and with some judicious editing this could have been a truly great pop album. As it is however, this rather bloated record should be regarded as a disappointment – an interesting one, but a disappointment none the less.