It was touted as Britney Spears‘ most personal album yet, but if that’s the case, maybe the world was better off not knowing Britney very well at all. The pop siren’s eighth studio album, Britney Jean (out today, on RCA Records), is her least substantial yet — another disappointment in a year where most of the major pop divas underwhelmed with much-anticipated LPs. At turns flimsy and undercooked, elsewhere smothered in heavy-handed production gimmicks, it’s — in my estimation, at least — the first time in fifteen years that Spears has ever released something truly lackluster. Accordingly, listening to it is kind of a bummer.
Spears has always been the ultimate chameleon — a tool for producers to experiment. (Christian Karlsson, one-half of the innovative production team Bloodshy & Avant who helmed songs like “Toxic” and “Piece Of Me,” once told me that Spears was always his favorite because, he said, “She let us do whatever we wanted on her songs.”) But on Britney Jean, executive producer Will.i.am told Popjustice that Spears was “in charge” of the record, explaining: “These are all her decisions. Executive producers don’t have the final decision, the artist always does.” Unless he’s lying outright, this album sounds exactly how Spears wanted it to sound.
That’s the problem, because here, Spears seems a little, well, simple. The beats aren’t particularly fresh. The production is pedestrian and predictable. She sings with more power and sincerity than she has since her debut, but the material is beneath her. There are high points, certainly, but there aren’t many of them.
The William Orbit-produced “Alien” opens the album marvelously, sounding like some cousin of her Circus masterpiece “Unusual You” and Femme Fatale standout “Criminal”; it skips and hums hypnotically, those choirs of “Not alone” chanted over and over again. It’s probably the only thing here that’s genuinely worthy of her. Likewise, the two singles were both been solid but they lack some Britney greatness, some special magic: “Work Bitch” is razor-sharp but undifferentiated, and “Perfume” is great but flawed, a few too many awkward lyrics (“Current girlfriend, ex-girlfriend, I’m trying to be cool” is a clunker if ever there was one).
“It Should Be Easy,” the only song on the album that Will tramples on directly, is execrable, while “Tik Tik Boom” has shades of sanitized trap but never rises above a sort of dull patter, especially with T.I.‘s colorless rap.”Body Ache,” with its paint-by-numbers David Guetta production, could belong to any faceless dance diva; “Til It’s Gone” has a little bit more character, but that, too, fails to feel extraordinary; either could be Rihanna songs. “Passenger” may well have been left on the cutting room floor when Katy Perry was editing Prism — in fairness, it doesn’t feel like a Britney song, at least as far as we’ve come to understand what that is — but it’s one of the hookiest efforts here, with a warm, feel-good chorus and driving production. The featherweight gaffe “Chillin’ With You” does a disservice to both Spears sisters (it sounds like a forgettable song from Hilary Duff‘s Metamorphosis), and the spooky whistle on “Don’t Cry” is a nice touch, but her voice sounds painfully strained on the blippy, tuneless chorus.
The bonus tracks are mushier, and mostly better, than the meat of the album’s lackluster standard edition: Dr. Luke‘s production on “Brightest Morning Star” gives it the most triumphant chorus on the record, cheesy as it is, and the sweet-but-gloopy midtempo “Hold On Tight” strikes a similar balance. “Now That I Found You” is an Toy-Box-style Eurodance lullaby, too appealingly weird to dismiss, and the “Dreaming Mix” of “Perfume” is superior to the single version, point-blank. But the songs that pad out the deluxe edition, especially when consumed as a whole, have religious undertones that don’t really align with the “I just wanna dance” messaging of the album that preceded them.
Britney Jean is slight; its runtime is only 36 minutes on the standard edition, 51 minutes on the deluxe. Perhaps this is merciful. Spears has always been most exhilarating not as herself, but as the muse of the world’s most breathtakingly skilled pop producers, and accordingly her greatness has never been about what she does to a song, but in how she allows the creative team behind each song to flourish without getting in their way. All that’s gone here, and what’s left is something that doesn’t feel very exhilarating, or great, at all; it’s just okay. Was that deliberate? After a decade and a half of being deified, vilified, adored, mocked, and chased through the streets of Calabasas by hordes of paparazzi when she’s just trying to get a damn Frappuccino, maybe she’s just trying to tell the world something about how very ordinary she can be.
Full Disclosure: Boy, I sure do feel like I’ve been saying this a lot this year to guard myself against attacks when I unfavorably review a big pop album, but seriously, I love Britney so much, and this album just made me sad. It was the first and only time in my history as a Spears fan that I found myself looking for things to like on this album, rather than its brilliance grabbing me by the throat. Surely she deserves better material than this.
Idolator Score: 2.5/5
— Sam Lansky
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