By MARK GUARINO Music Writer | Chicago Sun-Times
December 2, 2013 5:49PM
‘BRITNEY JEAN’ (RCA)
It’s come to this: Britney Spears as elder stateswoman, aiming to reclaim the powder puff throne currently a musical-chair toss-up between Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus. Spears, who turns 32 this week, is too familiar with cycling through the roles of sex tart, tabloid wreck, and post-stardom survivor. This new album, her eighth, doesn’t extend the narrative more than it keeps it in place, despite her promise made earlier this year via Twitter that it would be “her most personal album ever.”
Not quite. To buy into “Britney Jean,” one has to accept the retooled Britney from 2007, when she emerged from the head-shaving, paparazzi-assaulting, and K-Fed-marrying Britney of years past. “Blackout,” her comeback album from that year, pushed her vocals far behind the big beats, allowing her music to be less about her personal drama and more about the whims of her blue-chip production team.
This new album is lockstep with that album, as it is the two others (2008’s “Circus” and 2011’s “Femme Fatale”) squeezed between both. In this incarnation, will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas is executive producing, which means each song is packed with studio fizz and fits the funk firmly on the Euro dance floor.
Under his direction, the majority of these 10 songs fit the current EDM mold, with co-producers William Orbit, David Guetta, Diplo and others brought in to layer the most hypnotic elements of trance music (“Alien,” “Body Ache”) and the synths and stuttering beats of dubstep (“Tik Tik Boom,” “Til It’s Gone”). Then there’s “Work B—-,” the album’s first single released this fall, a cold-as-steel siren call to living the high life (“you want a hot body?/you want a Maserati?), which thumps mightier than Thor’s hammer.
The continuity of “Britney Jean” with the post-“Blackout” albums works against it. Four albums into her rejuvenation, the tricks are too familiar, the sounds not as fresh. One essential trait Gaga, Katy and Miley have that Spears woefully lacks is vocal power. Here, she’s veiled behind the studio confetti. On the softer moments (“Passenger,” “Perfume”), Spears’ nasal vocals don’t cut it, while on the core bangers (“Alien,” “It Should Be Easy”), she’s once again overreliant on vocal enhancement software that robotizes her every utterance.
Removing herself from her tabloid past is understandable, but removing herself from herself, where vulnerability vanishes, represents a missed opportunity. This is metal machine music even Lou Reed would find without heart.