Britney Spears, “Britney Jean” (RCA )
Spears has been promising that her new album 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.
It turns out that “Britney Jean” is about as personal as an airline preboarding announcement.
The CD arrives after three albums full of electronic sizzle and mind games. On “Blackout,” from 2007, and “Circus,” from 2008, songs leveraged Spears’ own tabloid fame for taunts and counterattacks, playing on public fascination without giving away any secrets. “Femme Fatale,” from 2011, concentrated on dancing and romance but made the production even more dizzying. 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 Spears’ usual bases — love, lust, dancing, success, breaking up — with no personalizing details.
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, Spears traded away the teen-pop mastermind Dr. Luke for Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas. Like the Peas back in 2009, Spears and Will.i.am have turned to European disc jockeys with 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 Bitch,” 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 DJs 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 cliches 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 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.”
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 co-written with Katy Perry.
After the earthbound “Britney Jean” and two years in Las Vegas, a bid for redemption would be a canny move.
Jon Pareles, New York Times