Since Britney Spears exploded onto the music scene in 1998 with her wide smile and sharp dance moves, the former Mouseketeer has remained an American pop cultural mainstay. But after her heavily publicized struggles with mental illness in 2007, and her father’s subsequent conservatorship over her business affairs, critics have argued that Spears is now only an echo of her former self on her own albums, with her over-synthesized Southern huskiness drowned out by heavy dance beats.
Nonetheless, Blackout, Circus and Femme Fatale, her three albums since checking into a mental health facility, have been the most innovative of her career, introducing avant-garde EDM elements, slick production and dizzying vocal distortions to mainstream pop. However artificial, Spears asserted a captivating persona who was brazenly confident and fully aware of the media fascination that surrounded her.
In response to the criticism of Spears “phoning in” on her recent albums, she and her team have marketed Britney Jean, released on Dec. 3, as her “most personal album ever.” She has writing credits on every track, some of which delve more into darker territory than we’ve seen on her past efforts. Nevertheless, Britney Jean mostly plays it safe, and the result is a disjointed album with a few glimmers of promise. Some tracks take on more “personal” material and deviate from the dance music Spears is now famous for. The rest, unfortunately, are forgettable EDM smashers, with cheesy production by will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas, that sound like they could have been thumping in a European nightclub three years ago.
The opening track, “Alien,” produced by William Orbit, is the highlight of Britney Jean. “There was a time I was one of a kind / Lost in the world of me, myself and I / Was lonely then like an alien,” Spears sings in the opening verse. Orbit’s production is severe, and Spears’ low vocals, while still recognizably Britney, are processed in a way that creates a distant, dreary effect. “I tried but I never figured it out / Why I always felt like a stranger in a crowd,” she sings. The track touches on the loneliness Spears has experienced as a pop icon, as she has openly lamented her superstardom. “Alien” remains eerily constant throughout; no barrage of dubstep or EDM interrupts. The track doesn’t soar like a typical Britney dance hit, but mesmerizes through its simplicity.
Next comes “Work Bitch,” the album’s campy first single. Spears revives her pseudo-English accent, first heard on “Scream and Shout,” and acts as an uncompromising motivator: “You want a hot body? / You want a Bugatti? / You want a Maserati? / You better work bitch,” she commands. Though not her best experiment in EDM, “Work Bitch” just might be the ultimate workout song. And it’s the only will.i.am produced EDM piece on Britney Jean that’s not a total snooze. If the mantra “You better work, bitch” doesn’t get you running a little faster on the treadmill, I don’t know what will.
In “Perfume,” the third track, Spears drops the English accent and tough exterior to convey a more vulnerable side. “Perfume” is a mid-tempo ballad penned by Spears and the talented Sia Furler that, unlike most recent Britney songs, actually focuses on the vocals rather than the production. Listeners may be surprised. Spears’ raw voice, which we haven’t heard in about a decade, sounds surprisingly strong. “So I, I wait for you to call / And I try to act natural / Have you been thinking ’bout her or ’bout me?” The emotion in Spears’ voice is clearly evident as she shakily belts the chorus, revealing a sad vulnerability; she expresses paranoia that her lover is being unfaithful.
As longtime fans will be delighted to hear, Spears sings in her natural lower register. Her signature enunciations and guttural notes that distinguished her from other pop singers in the late ’90s are in full force. The only issue with “Perfume” is the production. will.i.am layers on some corny ’80s beats that detract from the emotional resonance of the lyrics, and make an otherwise lovely song sound outdated. Luckily, in the deluxe version of Britney Jean, listeners can find a remix of “Perfume” with stripped down production that’s actually better than the original version. Of course, it’s no “Everytime,” but it’s pretty stunning.
After the promising first three tracks, Britney Jean takes a turn for the worse. Skeptics of will.i.am (honestly, most Britney fans cringed when they found out he was the executive producer) will find “It Should Be Easy,” the excessively synthesized duet between Spears and Mr. Exec Producer, to be horrendous. Both voices sound more auto-tuned than ever, and the cookie-cutter synths are dizzyingly dull. The song sounds like a Femme Fatale reject. EDM bangers “Til It’s Gone” and “Body Ache” are entertaining enough. They’ll get you dancing. But juxtaposed with Spears’ vocal presence on “Perfume” and “Alien,” she sounds like a nearly unrecognizable idea of “Britney.”
The second half of Britney Jean somewhat redeems itself with “Passenger” and “Don’t Cry.” “Passenger,” a pop-rock ballad with some EDM peppered in, is catchy and showcases Spears’ trademark vocal melismas and ticks. Co-written with Katy Perry, “Passenger” features lyrics about giving over your fears to another. “I’ll let you lead the way now, ’cuz I want you to take the wheel,” Spears professes. The sentiment is poignant and relatable. “Don’t Cry” showcases stronger vocals by Spears, but resonates no more than any generic breakup song.
For those hoping to hear a more candid Britney Spears, don’t expect to find it on Britney Jean. Fans wanting to know more about how she has overcome the many challenges in her life will be disappointed, and perhaps that’s for the best. Spears should not have to recount the painful events of her past if she doesn’t feel comfortable doing so. Nevertheless, Britney Jean is trying to have it all—personal Britney and party Britney—and for this reason it is the pop icon’s weakest album. Jarring club bangers mix with vulnerable ballads, and the result is a collection of songs that feel loosely connected.
Spears has done little to promote the album, instead gearing up for her two-year Vegas residency. After being awarded the esteemed Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award in 2011, it seems that she is now comfortable leaning back on her pop throne without focusing much on making chart-topping new material. The high-energy Britney of the new millennium who took the world by storm hasn’t been present for a while, likely for a multitude of reasons (let’s remember that several news outlets had already written her obituary in 2007). And while the result is disappointing for fans, more power to her. She deserves to put her feet up at this point.