By Jamieson Cox
Even icons find themselves subject to the mercy of narrative, and Britney Spears has now twice tried one of the tricks of that particular game: a self-titled album as shorthand for truth and authenticity.
With singles like “I’m a Slave 4 U,” “Overprotected” and “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman,” 2001’s Britney was the vehicle for Spears’ transition from virginal, bright teen-pop to slinky, heavily rhythmic dance-pop with R-rated lyrical themes to match. Twelve years later, new album Britney Jean ostensibly marks another transition, this one into confessional, newly personal pop inspired by Spears’ experiences as a mother, her recent breakup with fiancé Jason Trawick and her lengthy tour of duty in the world of hyper-celebrity. Spears co-wrote every song on the album, and in the months leading up to its release has been emphasizing its multifaceted nature and painful roots: “I know I keep telling you that it is my most personal record yet, but it’s true and I’m really proud of that … 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,” she wrote to fans on her website.
The creative process behind Britney Jean certainly sounds promising — a reinvigorated Spears working with her usual crack team of collaborators, fusing her brand of ruthlessly catchy dance-pop with new-found lyrical depth — but spending any extended period of time with the album leaves the incongruity between much of its sound and its supposed thematic focus hard to ignore. The conflict is neatly encapsulated in lead single “Work Bitch,” a Sebastian Ingrosso-produced banger that’s practically traditional in terms of structure and tone c. 2013: Spears spits banalities about working in her best British accent — working hard, working it out, getting to work, etc. — over a beat that’s ripped from Disclosure’s UK hit “White Noise” and aggressive synths. There’s an interesting message tucked deep within “Work Bitch,” a comment on the relentless demands of staying on top that would jive with Spears’ claims about universal relation, but it’s buried beneath layers of camp, hopelessly generic platitudes and an overwhelming arrangement.
The problem persists through Britney Jean’s middle third, where Spears tries to split the difference between contemporary EDM-pop (produced by the likes of David Guetta, Nicky Romero, and will.i.am) and reflections on her life. The songs contained within are wickedly effective, primed for the radio and the dance floor — the Guetta collaborations “It Should Be Easy,” “Body Ache” and “Til It’s Gone” are particularly strong — but their slavish devotion to familiar form drowns out the sentiments that supposedly shape the album’s emotional core. Whether it’s will.i.am chirping, “Baby, love / it should be easy / it shouldn’t be complicated” on “It Should Be Easy” or Spears repeating, “You never know what you got til it’s gone” like a malfunctioning robot over a bed of laser synths on “Til It’s Gone,” these songs do hold tiny grains of personality and truth, but Spears’ post-Blackout brand of pop devalues lyrical introspection compared to melody, rhythm and intensity.
Elsewhere on the album, Spears escapes her issues with context only to find herself performing material that’s ill-suited to her style and personal experience. This is most egregious on “Passenger,” a mid-tempo power ballad written with Sia, Katy Perry and Diplo. Spears sings about relinquishing control to a lover and finding trust as a passenger, a sentiment that turns disturbing in consideration of the fact that Spears was placed under conservatorship of her father and legal counsel in 2008, and that her ex-fiancé (and ex-manager) was part of this conservatorship until their recent split. “Passenger” would make sense as a deep cut on Prism, Perry’s new record that’s chock-full of such mid-tempo ballads inspired by her own sordid love life. In Spears’ hands, “Passenger” sounds like farce, or worse, a cruel joke.
Britney Jean’s misfires are thrown into sharp relief by its handful of successes, songs that point towards a new sound that would suit Spears’ maturation as a performer and complement any future attempts at similarly personal material. Second single “Perfume” is a tender account of betrayal that places Spears’ vocals first, a welcome change from her deployment as a plug-and-play presence on much of the album’s remainder. The image of Spears marking her lover with perfume to send a quiet message to another woman is powerful, and it forces the listener to consider the personal relevance the concept might hold for Spears. “Chillin’ with You,” a strummed duet with younger sister Jamie Lynn Spears, succeeds on entirely different terms: the Spears girls set up camp in Britney’s living room with bad movies and better wine, hanging out completely at ease. (If pairs of tipsy drag queens aren’t covering it live by the end of the month, our society has failed.) We don’t get much from Spears other than each sister’s vino preference (red for Britney, white for Jamie Lynn), but “Chillin’ with You” invites us to imagine Spears truly relaxed and having the kind of night we’d call “normal,” putting the kids to bed before sneaking downstairs for some ‘me time.’ It’s personality, sure, but only through implication.
Then there’s album opener “Alien,” which finds Spears inadvertently nailing her past and future with help from electronic pop god William Orbit. She sings, “There was a time I was one of a kind,” and she’s right: no one else has moved from teen queen to American tragedy to pop Lazarus with her speed and success, and few can claim to have spent the same length of time at the vanguard of pop music. But Spears is searching for something new with Britney Jean, an identity that’s perhaps a step or two back from the genre’s boundaries but more ripe with personality and nuance: “I want to show you the different sides of Britney Spears. I am a performer. I am a Mom. I am funny. I am your friend! I am Britney Jean.” In its finest moments, Britney Jean is a step in that direction. It’s unfortunate that the bulk of the album pits her sound against her thematic intentions, muddling her message.