‘Back to Basics’: Christina Aguilera’s over-sung, overstuffed throwback (Xploring Xtina Part 3)

For a pop singer in her prime, four years is a lifetime between albums, yet that was the amount of time Christina Aguilera took to put out a follow-up to her career-redefining Stripped.

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Back to Basics, which dropped in 2006, is the third English pop album in her catalog, but the second and final studio album that decade, and exemplifies a cardinal problem throughout Christina Aguilera’s career: taking forever to release new albums. When it happens, fans get impatient quickly and move on to other artists, or simply get older and exit the phase where they worship their favorites by Blu-Tacking posters on their walls.

Fortunately, sufficient fans prevailed in the last four years to give Christina the desired attention (something she wouldn’t enjoy subsequently with Bionic four years later.) Back to Basics debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200, selling 346,000 copies in its first week, thanks in large part to the success of its lead single, “Ain’t No Other Man.”

Inspired by Christina’s romance with then-husband, Jordan Bratman, the fiery pop song infuses jazz, soul and blues with Christina’s piercing vocals (the singer already belting eight seconds into the song.) “Ain’t No Other Man” was the newlywed asserting her devotion to the music producer she met on the set of 2002’s “Dirrty” video.

The track was a preview of the artist’s direction for the new album. Lyrically, a bulk gratified the singer’s romantic life (“The Right Man.”) Musically, it was a throwback record to the sounds of the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, drawing inspiration from the singer’s childhood idols Etta James, Billie Holliday and the like. It was a complete tangent from what was the dominant trend at the time: modern, urban beats (i.e. Justin Timberlake‘s entire FutureSex/LoveSounds, Nelly Furtado‘s “Promiscuous.”) Like with Stripped, Christina committed fully by reinventing her look, paying homage to Marilyn Monroe via a glamorous blonde bob only previously seen in a 2004 music video with the rapper Nelly.

“Ain’t No Other Man” peaked at #6 in July 2006, a promising chart position that boosted the sales of its parent album, but it was the last time a single from Christina’s studio albums would make the Top 10.

Her next single, “Hurt,” was penned by Linda Perry, the songwriter behind Stripped’s “Beautiful”. Although meant to recreate the success of “Beautiful” by following the second-single-is-a-ballad formula, the single didn’t go higher than #19. By 2006, it had become increasingly difficult for a pop ballad to climb the charts. (That said, “Hurt” is one of Christina’s most revisited songs. It is one of her most-streamed songs on Spotify, and has more views on YouTube than “Beautiful”.)

The third single “Candyman,” while a catchy swing number, peaked at #25. Subsequent singles only enjoyed a limited release in Europe or Australia, which meant that the US only had three offerings from this throwback album. The climate of pop music just wasn’t optimal for Christina’s bluesy sound; listeners only really welcomed “Ain’t No Other Man”.

On the other hand, critics had a bone to pick with the length and vocal performance in Back to Basics.

For one, the album was a two-disc that totalled 22 songs (two entries more than Stripped). Somehow, Christina had decided to give two albums worth of material to compensate her extended hiatus post-Stripped, resulting in an album overstuffed by fillers.

Back to Basics commences with an unnecessary intro where Christina essentially explains the album’s direction. Midway through Disc 1 is an entire interlude (“F.U.S.S.”) dedicated to dissing former collaborator Scott Storch, who allegedly made unreasonable demands during preproduction of the new album and strained their relationship. The first disc ends with a gratuitous montage of fans thanking Christina, even though the track is ironically titled “Thank You (Dedication To Fans…)”.

The second disc starts with a track entirely of circus music, that while dazzling, could’ve been merged and condensed with the next track, “Welcome.” And throughout the album, the songs proper are decent at best, with nothing particularly good except the heavily-sampled “Understand” and the whispery “Save Me From Myself.”

Many tracks are guilty pleasure recordings of Christina oversinging, a habit that has inflamed since Stripped. Big, long notes are recklessly strewn across final choruses, particularly “Here To Stay,” an overproduced track suffering a horn infestation. When the song was remixed and made current for a Pepsi commercial starring Christina, the song improved tenfold.

That brings me back to the fundamental problem with Back to Basics: the throwback sound was less hit and more miss. While there were certain instances of brilliance (“Ain’t No Other Man”, “Understand”), the rest of it sounded passable at best.

I’ll give credit where it is due: “Ain’t No Other Man” won Christina a Grammy, while “Candyman” and the album were also nominated, so the album wasn’t a failure at all. Relative to Christina’s subsequent works, Back to Basics is by and large a moderate success, but without the commercial success of the debut album, the cultural impact of Stripped and the sonic satisfaction of either.

It was an album she loved creating since souls, jazz and blues were the pillars of her childhood, but on hindsight, it didn’t maximize the opportunities of extending her portfolio of hits especially since it was the last album released in her prime. That’s the truth, since she only bothers to perform “Ain’t No Other Man” these days.

Xploring Xtina is a weekly series of retrospective articles about Christina Aguilera’s albums, leading up to the release of her sixth studio album Liberation on June 15.

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