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Britney Spears’ mission statement for her eighth “most personal” studio album was to bare her soul, but the execution doesn’t tally up.
Granted, record execs would likely balk at the brand dilution if Spears were to air her dirty laundry à la former Mouseketeer peer Christina Aguilera’s ‘Stripped’ (2002). Some of her most iconic dance tracks off 2008’s ‘Circus’ and 2011’s ‘Femme Fatale’ glossed over the debacle of her personal life – shearing her famous tresses, losing physical custody of her two sons to ex-husband Kevin Federline and recurring rehab stints for substance abuse. Instead, her music insisted on an allegorical world of sexual conquest (“Lace And Leather”), seduction on the dance floor (“Hold It Against Me”) and defiance of her critics (“If You Seek Amy”).
But in a letter to fans on October 25, 2013, Spears reiterated ‘Britney Jean’’s autobiographical aspirations, intimating, “I have been through a lot in the past few years and it has really inspired me to dig deeper and write songs that I think everyone can relate to.” However, listening to the album it’s hard not to feel hoodwinked.
First track “Alien,” co-produced by William Orbit, revisits the isolation of fame in “Lucky” and “Overprotected,” as Spears sings of feeling lonely “like an alien.” “Had to get used to the world I was on/While yet still unsure if I knew where I belong” she confesses over a reverberated synth and thumping percussive that evoke the emptiness of a boundless stratosphere.
However, the hook renders “Alien” a generic love song, as Spears sings of “following the light” in her lover’s eyes to find her way home, while the chorus is simply the words “Not alone” repeated twelve times in a lulling fashion that conjures images of alien minions nodding their heads along in rhythm.
If “personal” is the yardstick for hit or miss, “Alien” and “Perfume” are the album’s sole qualifiers. “Perfume” casts Spears as a woman who, insecure in her relationship, “marks her territory” with perfume while “waiting for him to call.” Coupled with the music video, in which her love interest cavorts with a mystery brunette while she watches from afar, Spears touches on an endearingly universal theme: the vulnerability of wanting to be wanted.
Despite tell-all intentions and co-writing credits on all ten songs – a first for Spears – she all but brushes off her January 2013 split from fiancé and former manager Jason Trawick in the ballad “Don’t Cry.” Instead of reflecting on her third jilted engagement, she defers to self-help book speak: “We gotta get over, get over the mountain” and “Let’s move on and be stronger” before a funeral march of a chorus in which she bids Trawick (or herself?) not to cry.
Shrugging off lost love seems to be her heartbreak balm of choice – two months after the breakup (she wanted more children; he didn’t) she was dating lawyer David Lucado. Then, while guest-hosting radio show, American Top 40, Spears advised a caller asking how to cure lovesickness: “Get another guy really quick!”
Will.i.am-penned dance track “Til It’s Gone,” also allegedly about Trawick, is – lyrically, at least – less dismissive. Spears hacks her way through stuttered vowels over a piano melody – “’Cause you ca-a-ame/And you ga-a-ave me a pla-a-ace/Place to la-a-ay all my pa-a-ain” – tiring the listener before attaining the chorus, at which point a psychedelic synth that rebounds over and over like a boomerang unfolds into a track that shows Spears still has dance floor prowess – if you can grit your teeth through the equally painstaking second verse.
Dance beats have been Spears’ stronghold from day one, but the 10-track ‘Britney Jean’ fails to deliver anything as memorable as ‘Femme Fatale’ ’s “Til The World Ends” and “I Wanna Go.” “Body Ache” (unredeemed by David Guetta’s contribution) and “It Should Be Easy” melt together nondescriptly, both reeking of executive producer Will.i.am.
When a song’s lift is provided entirely by dub step, elementary school lyrics and knob-twiddling cyber-tronic sound effects, don’t expect longevity on the airwaves. It may have worked for “Scream & Shout” off Will.i.am’s latest album ‘#willpower’, but Spears’ vocals on “It Should Be Easy” are so robotic she sounds submerged underwater, as is the point of the song itself.
Seduction anthem “Tik Tik Boom” featuring T.I. is classic Britney Spears: thumping bass drum (clearly meant to evoke a ticking bomb), come-hither lyrics and a momentum Spears speeds up and slows down as she pleases – one of the few songs on ‘Britney Jean’ which you can hum to yourself after listening for the first time; while others leave little to no impression.
Mid-tempo “Passenger” bears the unmistakable stamp of songwriter Katy Perry’s “Wide Awake” and “Unconditional,” but in Spears’ hands the tune underwhelms, for Perry wrote the song as if for herself. In the hands of a capable vocalist the melody yields ample opportunity for vocal acrobatics, but Spears simply doesn’t have Perry’s pipes.
Co-writing credits throughout does not a “personal” album make; but Spears’ creative gestalt has always been heavy on conceptualization and roping in the right hit-makers. But if a purely formulaic approach no longer works and experimentation falls flat, where must an artist turn?
Image credit: Britney Spears via Facebook