Britney Spears - Britney Jean Review
Posted by David Hayter on 12.10.2013
Britney Spears is back, but does her latest album make her relevant in the pop world again? 411's David Hayter checks in with his full review!
Britney Spears - Britney Jean
1. Alien 2. Work Bitch 3. Perfume 4. It Should Be Easy (feat. Will.i.am) 5. Tik Tik Boom (feat. T.I.) 6. Body Ache 7. Til It’s Gone 8. Passenger 9. Chillin’ With You (feat. Jamie Lynn Spears) 10. Don’t Cry
11. Brightest Morning Star 12. Hold On Tight 13. Now That I Found You 14. Perfume (The Dreaming Mix)
How should one of America’s great manufactured teen pop princesses age? Grace and tact are no longer an option for Britney Spears, but that shouldn’t remotely matter. Pop stars that play by the rules are rarely exciting; who wants to be the elder statesmen when you could be the headline grabbing wild child? The trouble is, there are always younger, wilder and more on trend starlets ready to innately capture the moment. Miley can miss the mark by a mile and pass it off as a misjudged folly of youth; when a 32-year-old mother-of-three embarrassingly fails to capture the zeitgeist the groans, rightly or wrongly, are audible.
There was a brief glimmer of potential of brilliance when post-breakdown Britney dropped the camp masterpiece Blackout: a masterful blend of thrillingly un-cool beats, dignity free delights (“Gimme More”), paparazzi baiting outbursts (“Piece Of Me”) and well judged but delightfully off balanced pop songs. The feel good momentum carried over to 2008’s Circus but disappeared on 2011’s Femme Fatale.
Calling Britney Spears manufactured is not so much a snide insult as an allusion to her greatest asset. Britney is the ultimate wind me up and watch me go pop star, devoid of a truly defining character trait but happy to lend her guileless (are-they-aren’t-they-ironic) vocals to her handlers latest whim. She proved to be the perfect allegory for frustrated tweens in her 20s, but by the late 2000s it turned out that Britney was indeed “Overprotected”. When her writers and producers threw up their hands and offered her only half-baked hand-me-down beats and second-rate singles, Britney had no choice but to accept what she was given.
Britney Jean is supposed to be the escape from that vicious cycle of latter day decline. Britney made all the right noises: this record would stop the rot, get serious, address personal issues, tackle her divorce and give her career a much needed sense of purpose. The desire is admirable and during the album’s closing suite (recalling her best early 2000s balladry) she does begin to tug at the heart strings – something Britney hasn’t done since “I’m A Girl, Not Yet A Woman” – but “Don’t Cry” strained laments are the exception not the rule.
Perhaps the production team didn’t get the memo. It’s easy to imagine team Will.i.am simply ignoring Britney intent as they set about cranking out another selection of spectacularly bland arrangements. “Til It’s Gone” is perhaps the worst offender, the lyrics are on point if pedestrian – prideful “you don’t know what you missing out on buddy” jabs – but the beat is a classic dumbed down Daft Punk knock off. The kind David Guetta rode to pop superstardom and then saw fit to run into the ground without even the slightest hint of remorse. Will.i.am’s production at this point is pure pantomime, the audience knows exactly what to expect and Britney Jean is never allowed to deviate from the tiresome formula.
“Passanger” is perhaps the worst offender. Diplo is roped in to deliver a wholly anonymous performance as head producer Anthony Preston smothers any hint of individuality. The result is a chin up, head strong, anthem about a very specific divorce that contrives to sound like every other such song of the last decade - that’s not a lazy cliché on my part, the similarities are so numerous that picking out an artist or track in isolation would do a disservice to the sheer featureless banality of Preston’s work. Old ideas can produce phenomenal and even fresh results, Miley’s chest thumping impala-on-fire anthem “Drive” is proof of that, but that level of brazen grandstaning is snuffed out immediately on Britney Jean.
There are glimmers of what Britney can bring to even a half-hearted production. “Chillin’ With You” might be flaccid, but Brit’s doe eyed delivery is so wonderfully insincere that it puts Ron Burgundy to shame as it sets up a crafty faux-gangsta chorus. “Work Bitch” offers a chronically depressing sentiment – better ready that bikini body because you're not getting to the top any other way – but viewed as a slice of camp hedonism alone, it works a treat. Britney’s vocals are deliciously cold. It was the performance she was made for, all dead eyed cynicism, and only slightly diminished by a horrible bridge.
“Alien” is less successful but works well enough, mining Avcii’s folk sincerity meets Europop empty bigness shtick for all its worth. “Perfume” is another track that has some refreshingly specific lyricism and a passable melody, but the track is dragged down by adhering so rigidly to convention. These are second tier cuts at best and that’s all Britney Jean can muster.
Britney Spears has had the ace up her sleeve forcibly removed. There is no inanity, no moment so misjudged that it actually bypasses the pop culture and creates its own sense of (usually) camp cool. Britney Jean is an album that is frightened of falling on its face, when that’s exactly what Britney does best. When this pop star stumbles she lands in fertile territory and makes the dementedly contrived work for her, but Anthony Preston refuses to let this train come of the rails. The mundane “Body Ache” and faux lunacy of “Tik Tik Boom” encapsulate a neutered album that captures all the joy of watching a model train slowly but safety negotiate a standard loop.
This Britney isn’t crazy, this Britney isn’t camp, this Britney isn’t an allegory for stifled teenaged sexuality, and this Britney certainly is not a defiant divorcee setting the world to rights. No this Britney is nothing at all; she was never given the opportunity. This Britney, Anthony Preston and Will.i.am’s Britney Jean, simply isn’t any good.
The 411: Britney Spears approached this album with drive and purpose. She had a clear subject matter in mind (her recent divorce) and was ready to inject a sense of intimacy and honesty into her premade pop star façade. Unfortunately, head producers Anthony Preston and Will.i.am had no interest in expanding Britney’s remit. In fact, if Britney Jean suggests they had no interest in the project whatsoever. The beats are uniformly recycled, second rate and hopelessly dated. Any sense of sincerity or joyful inanity are snuffed out as who’s who of producers (from Guetta to Diplo) phone it in and pick up a paycheck. Banal, bland, and boring; Britney Jean is no fun. If her handlers have given up, rather than letting a series of disinterested men sabotage her career, it’s time Britney took the goldmine of inspiration that is her personal life and stepped out on her own. It would be a first, but she can’t risk another album of this ilk.