New York Times: "The new Britney Spears album is as personal as an airline preboarding announcement"
Britney Spears has been promising that her new album, “Britney Jean,” is her “most personal album ever” since July, when she first tweeted the phrase. Fans might have hoped for a candid look at a turbulent life: child stardom as a Mouseketeer, reinvention as a teenage tease and then a trashy sex symbol, marriages, motherhood, public meltdowns, stints in rehab and her rebound as a hitmaker, a judge on “The X Factor” and, at the end of December, a performer starting a two-year residency in Las Vegas.
This week, Ms. Spears unveiled “Britney Jean” as an official iTunes stream ahead of its planned release date on Tuesday. And it turns out that “Britney Jean” is about as personal as an airline preboarding announcement.
“Britney Jean” arrives after three albums full of electronic sizzle and mind games. On “Blackout,” from 2007, and “Circus,” from 2008, songs leveraged Ms. Spears’ own tabloid fame for taunts and counterattacks, playing on public fascination without giving away any secrets. “Femme Fatale,” from 2011, after some years of damage control, concentrated on dancing and romance, but made the production even more dizzying. Ms. Spears and her many producers created a persona that was insolent, unrepentant and equally knowing about media manipulation and studio gimmickry. Sure, it was brazenly artificial, but it was also vibrant, and it held a multitude of cultural implications about desire, technology, stardom and pop calculation.
The fun leaches out while the calculation stays obvious on “Britney Jean.” The lyrics touch Ms. Spears’s usual bases — love, lust, dancing, success, breaking up — with no personalizing details. “If there was a scale from one to 10/on my love for you, it’s a million billion,” Ms. Spears sings in “It Should Be Easy.” A duet with her sister, Jamie Lynn Spears, “Chillin’ With You,” has Britney drinking red wine, Jamie drinking white, and both agreeing, “I had the time of my life.” The breakup song “Don’t Cry” vows, “This is gonna be our last goodbye/Our love is gone but I’ll survive.” No exposés here.
Every so often, Ms. Spears sings about insecurity — most dramatically in the single “Perfume,” a piano-driven trance-meets-pomp anthem written with Sia Furler, who has provided ardent hooks for dance, hip-hop and R&B hits. It starts with a good premise — before her boyfriend sees an ex-girlfriend, she’s going to get the smell of her perfume on him, to “mark my territory” — and circles through it with rising anxiety. It’s a wonder that Ms. Spears, who has had a sideline marketing perfumes since 2004, and her brain trust didn’t come up with this tie-in earlier.
While “Britney Jean” doesn’t make good on its “personal” promise, that’s not its main failing. The bigger letdown is that the music has lost its snap. Between albums, Ms. Spears traded away the teen-pop mastermind Dr. Luke — maybe she was tired of sharing him with Miley Cyrus, Rihanna and Katy Perry — for Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas, who is the executive producer of “Britney Jean.” Like the Black Eyed Peas back in 2009, Ms. Spears and Will.i.am have turned to European disc jockeys who have found dance music’s lowest, least funky common denominator: the steady thump of four-on-the-floor. And they’ve settled for too many tepid tracks.
In the album’s first single, “Work B**ch,” Ms. Spears assumes a peculiar accent and commands anyone who wants luxury brands and a “hot body” to “work it hard like it’s your profession.” The production uses tactics that the Sweden-based D.J.s Sebastian Ingrosso (from Swedish House Mafia) and Otto Knows can probably program in their sleep: the knock-on-the-door opening drumbeat, the slightly buzzing synthesizer line, the glissandos and ratcheting percussion on the way to the inevitable bass drop.
Add the trance-music clichés of piano chords and hovering keyboards, and it’s pretty much the same formula for the David Guetta co-production of “Body Ache.” Dubstep tricks, which were much fresher when Ms. Spears started using them in 2007, return on the inevitable promise of raunch, “Tik Tik Boom” (with T. I. rapping), and “Til It’s Gone.”
Ms. Spears turns 32 on Tuesday, and she’s clearly thinking about what happens when the party girl image loses its plausibility. She steps partway off the dance floor for ballads laced with electronic twitches: “Don’t Cry,” which uses a relatively skeletal production to cut the song’s sentimentality, and “Passenger,” which was written with both Ms. Furler and Ms. Perry.
Extra songs on the deluxe version of the album test a different path for Ms. Spears. “Brightest Morning Star” and “Now That I Found You” are grateful, major-key love songs that move from slow, pealing introductions — “Now That I Found You” has a U2 ring to it — toward uplifting dance beats. Meanwhile, their lyrics could easily be directed either to a lover or to God.
“I lift my hands and pray, ’cause life’s tough somedays/But I will not lose faith ’cause you will lead the way,” she sings in “Brightest Morning Star.” After the earthbound “Britney Jean” and two years in Las Vegas, a bid for redemption would be a canny move.