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The appropriately named 2007 album Blackout is often referred to as not only the holy grail of contemporary experimental pop music from a major artist (and one that predated and predicted the EDM genre), but is also commonly regarded as Britney Spears’ best album.
Whether this is true or not is debatable, but there is no denying the shock and delight upon first hearing Spears’ dark and unprecedented descent into dancefloor nirvana. Blackout‘s constantly extended recording schedule also took place in-between Spears’ very public, frequently disturbing breakdown and therefore the album’s emphasis and reliance on the power of producers cannot be overlooked.
The album may indeed become an albatross around Spears’ neck, such is the importance placed upon it and the wish for it be duplicated. But the star existed before that and continues to move forward – despite the pressure of our collective fascination and the seemingly naive hope that Britney will remain our eternal Pop Princess.
In its deluxe format, Britney Spears’ new album Glory is a 17-track, messy but above average record that – like a Mickey Mouse Club Russian doll – contains somewhere within it a more concise and very good 10-track record. After the horror of the aggressively formulaic Britney Jean, Spears’ will.i.am-helmed album from 2013, many will be relieved to know that the essential Spears DNA is alive and well here.
She is presented as an artist that is happy, silly, flirty and, somewhat crucially, engaged. Importantly, she’s still prepared to allow her own vulnerability to rise to the top. It’s these qualities that rendered her as a juggernaut of a pop star in the first place and why an album from Britney Spears is still regarded as an event in any calendar.
The album opens with two tracks that take risks for different reasons. The album’s lead track ‘Invitation’ features Spears with none of the hiccuping and yelping tics that have made her voice one of the most instantly recognisable of the last two decades. This Spears sings in an ethereal falsetto – a technique used on less than a handful of tracks over her career – which glides over a twinkling electronic soundscape and a buzzing bass, creating a mood more ominous than initially suspected. The album’s lead single follows.
‘Make Me…’ appears to be her least bombastic and most withdrawn track so far. The first listen suggests it’s nice enough but underwhelming. However, ‘Make Me…’ is the textbook definition of a grower. Its sinewy production and indelible hooks are so cunningly seductive that it eventually proves to be one of Spears’ finest introductory singles.
‘Man on the Moon’ reverts back to early Spears circa ‘Lucky’ and ‘Oops!’, with an exceptional melody underpinning a goofy romantic conceit. The whole culminates in a campy and wondrous French countdown in its middle eight.
Cashmere Cat produces the Ariana Grande-like, finger-clicking and slow jam of ‘Just Luv Me’. Meanwhile, the riotous, wah-wah disco of ‘Do You Wanna Come Over’ features an Electric Six ‘Gay Bar’-like male chorus.
A yearning melancholia pin-pricks Spears’ desperate sexual longing on ‘Just Like Me’ which might just be Glory’s ultimate shining star. It begins as a raspy, acoustic-strummed rock and roller before Spears’ devastating realisation of abused trust segues into an electro rush of cooed detachment that Spears’ sometime fairy pop Godmother, Madonna, would kill for.
Three of Glory‘s most interesting and unhinged moments are to be found on its deluxe version. ‘Coupure Électrique’ is sung entirely in French and sounds like a glacial synth-pop obscurity from some late 80s band with a few cult classics under their belt. ‘If I’m Dancing’ is a manic concoction of syncopated beats and snatched vocal samples that is Britney’s non-sexualised variation on Kelis’ ‘Milkshake’.
Long-term fans will go wild for the anthemic and riveting mid tempo jolt that ‘Liar’ provides. Its chorus is a delirious blend of major chords, melodramatic and piercing strings and juddering beats. An accusing Spears shuts the whole thing down. (If super producer Max Martin had reappeared in her pop-life then this would have been his contribution.)
There are some elements of Glory which are not as golden. The lyrically retrograde ‘Private Show’ is both rigid and overbearing with grating vocals. It’s comfortable at this point to hear Spears’ refer to the mechanisms of pole-dancing, an act that you imagine she performs in her live shows under duress but necessity.
‘Clumsy’, and to a lesser degree the tropical house churner ‘Better’, both have rote EDM drops that try to compensate for the failure to incorporate a decent chorus or hook. ‘What I Need’ is an enthusiastic albeit shrill and depressingly plastic attempt at nostalgic Motown.
‘Slumber Party’ and ‘Love Me Down’ both incorporate dancehall and reggae tropes and may very well become fan favourites, but neither can compete with the musicality and charm of Spears’ back catalogue.
Nine albums into her fascinating and remarkable career and Britney refuses to surrender to the confessional or intimate. David LaChapelle’s video for ‘Make Me…’ was rejected for reasons not officially made public but rumours that it was too explicitly sexual could be accurate given the replacement’s bland, hen-party type narrative. It’s these reveals that speak volumes about the contradictory (‘Slumber Party’ includes the lyrics ‘put on our music that makes us go fucking’) but compelling appeal of Brand Britney in 2016.
Glory may be guilty of trying on one too many styles and personas in order to find something that sticks, but it also contains some of the artist’s most idiosyncratic and appealing work for years. Britney Spears sounds like she has put her heart and soul into this record and has enjoyed every moment of the process. That has to count to something.