Back to Basics is, if nothing else, a triumph of diversity over coherence. No two songs sound similar on this two-disc compilation, as Christina takes her style to a whole new plateau of pretension—choirs akin to gospel, trumpets akin to jazz, and organs akin to the circus are all thrown into this assorted musical hybrid.
The album, she claims, is a throwback to jazz tunes of the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s, but there is little evidence of that; exemplifying this nonsense is the smorgasbord of a song, “Back in the Day,” which kicks off the supposedly “20s jazz” album with a 70’s blaxploitation bass riff that leads into lyrics about ‘50s musicians. The entire first disc is like this—primarily produced by DJ Premier, Christina overwhelms her supposed jazz style with conventionally synthesized hip-hop melodies and techniques.
The second disc, produced by songwriter Linda Perry, is decidedly more authentically jazzy than the first—gone are the sound effects, voiceovers, and techno hip-hop rhythms that dominated the first disc. The album is blessed with pseudo big-band jazz tracks that are well infused with Aguilera’s pop style, such as the lively “Candyman” or the sultry “I Got Trouble.” It also has a number of surprisingly heartfelt ballads such as “Hurt”, an ambiguous confession of pain about a deceased lover.
The progression of the album is perhaps its greatest success; it starts off with a somewhat bland first disc, transitions into the more lively second one, and ends with seemingly sincere confessions of Aguilera’s vulnerability (“Hurt,” “Mercy On Me,” “Save Me From Myself”) and finally her marriage (“The Right Man”), a solid ending to state her maturation over the years.
However, Christina overstays her welcome (two discs totaling over an hour and 15 minutes proves a bit much) and sends out mixed messages. A portion of Back To Basics deals with her praising her “Nasty Naughty Boy,” or enforcing the fact that she’s “Still Dirrty”—however, sprinkled in between these lustful tracks lie a few about remorse and regret. Songs such as “Mercy On Me,” where she sings, “So don't let me fool around no more/ Send your angels down to guide me through that door/ Well I've gone and confessed my regrets/ And I pray I'm not held in contempt” contradict the sultry “Candyman” or “Nasty Naughty Boy". In these songs, Aguilera embraces her shameless sex appeal with what might as well be a one-way phone sex conversation: “I’m gonna give you a little taste/ Of the sugar below my waste/ You nasty boy… Got you hot, bothered, and wet… Put your icing on my cake… Now gimme another spanking.” I can’t decide whether it’s admirable of her to satirize herself or condemnable that the song isn’t actually a satire.
Maybe the contradiction is for the best. After all, there’s something for everyone in Back to Basics, and the album is a very welcomed departure from both her and her genre’s conventions. Just don’t expect any real tribute to Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong—heaven forbid she should know who actually existed back in the ‘20s.