Britney Spears is back with her 8th (!) studio release, but there’s a lot less noise and hype surrounding her self-titled effort. It seems like what with her hosting duties on The X-Factor and the musical onslaught of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry made a return to music seem exhausting for our Brit. Her previous album, the excellent 2011 Femme Fatale faced a muted reception from her fan base, which might’ve contributed to the general feeling of malaise that Spears appears to be harboring for her musical career. Sold as her most “personal,” Britney Jean sounds a bit wistful, as if making music has become a rather difficult for Spears. Shockingly light on the giddy dance-floor fillers that usually populate her records, Britney Jean is dominated by relatively somber material.
A quick flip through the accompanying booklet reveals that Britney Spears in a reflective mood. Like a greatest hits album, the pages are filled with pictures of Spears through various moments of her career. There are also photos of devoted fans who wallpaper their rooms with Britney Spears posters and magazine covers (there’s even a lovely candid shot of Spears in pig tails and a schoolgirl’s uniform, taken during the “Hit Me Baby One More Time” video shoot more than 10 years ago). In the 14 years since she has exploded onto the music scene, Spears has weathered dramatic shifts in the music industry and has emerged from her status as a novelty act into a surprisingly consistent hitmaker. And though her ubiquitous, zeitgeist presence has dimmed considerable since her peak, she’s still able to pull out a top 10 hit at a time when her musical godmothers Madonna and Janet Jackson seem doomed to hitless status.
So why is Britney Jean such a comparative downer? Her personal life has gone through some brick-a-bracks, and her music that followed seemed intent to blithely ignore those issues, and instead plowed ahead with grim determination to the dance floor. But entering her 30s may have gotten Spears to take stock and prompt her to try her hand at some more lilting, pretty sounds.
Gone are the mile-wide hooks and buzzing, robotic synths that characterized her work with Max Martin. Instead, the dance music on the album is decidedly classier and more tasteful. Like her other studio albums, Britney Jean is a collaborative work from a large team of writers and producers – some songs’ writing credits top off at 11 names. But under the watchful eye of super producer, will.i.am, there’s a pleasing consistency. There are still the swirling beats, wall-to-wall harmonies, and abuse of Auto-Tune, but all of it’s done with an eye to economy and grace.
The album opens with the excellent “Alien,” the best song on the record. It should’ve been the first single. Produced by William Orbit, the song allows for Spears’ appealing voice to shine with a minimal amount of vocal production, proving that she should’ve abandoned the practice of coating her voice in studio trickery years ago. The song is a moody, pulsing number that recalls some of Orbit’s more spiritual work with Madonna. There’s a great loping drum and Orbit’s patented ambient electronic production.
“Body Ache” is also another great moment on the record – and the song that recalls Spears from her classic period. It works as a companion piece to her duet with will.i.am “Scream Out Loud” with an excellent and catchy rubbery synthesizer bouncing throughout the song. As with “Alien” Spears is allowed to sing without too much junk marring her voice, and she sounds almost unrecognizable (gone is her favorite husky hiccup that was heard in her other music). And it’s the closest the record comes to the kind of lose-your-inhibitions-on-the-dance floor anthem that Spears excelled at.
Along with David Guetta, will.i.am, Orbit, Spears also joins some big marquee names like T.I., Katy Perry, and the wonderful Sia. Her work with Perry and Sia is the great “Passenger,” a midtempo number with a kicky, muted guitar riff. Sia also helps write the pretty ballad “Perfume” and the sweet electropop lullaby “Brightest Morning Star.”
But despite these very high moments, Britney Jean ultimately starts to drag a bit in the star’s attempt to show off her maturity. The weaker songs often feel turgid and ponderous, with the exception of the lamentable “Work Bitch,” which attempts to be the post-millennial version of RuPaul’s “Supermodel (You Better Work),” but fails to reach its goal – it’s a tight-fisted club number that is predictable and boring and does nothing to reach out to Spears’ (considerable) gay fan base.
Interestingly enough, after listening to Britney Jean, I thought back to the Spice Girls’ 2000 final album Forever. Both Spears and the Spice Girls came out at a time in the late 1990s riding the bubblegum dance-pop wave, and the two acts were the leading names, racking up enviable hit lists and record sales. By 2000, the Spice Girls and Spears were looking at a pop landscape that has shifted. The prefab five failed to evolve, while Spears managed to survive; but the tone of Britney Jean has a similarly poignant defiance and proclamations of uplift that often sound unconvincing. In the end, Spears sounds tired, like the club kid who stayed on the dance floor too long.