Even now, just about to celebrate her 32nd birthday, Britney Spears remains as enigmatic as the Disney-groomed, emotionally insulated teen who greeted us in the late ’90s. It’s part of why we treasure her: The feeling that, even as she sings her most seductive or inventive songs, the real Brit’s off dreaming her unknowable dreams. Britney Jean, which takes its title from her family nickname and has been billed as the most ”personal” of her eight albums, tells you virtually bupkus about her struggles over the years. But in just 10 tidy songs, it brings us closer than ever before to that distant dreamer.
Of course, since it’s a Britney Spears album executive-produced by will.i.am in 2013, it also happily indulges the fantasies of endorphin-seeking EDM festival goers. Brit promises she ”won’t stop ’til you breathe heavy” on ”Body Ache,” a David Guetta track that nearly builds to a clobbering house beat, then cannily falls back. Thor’s hammer comes down instead on the other Guetta collaboration, ”It Should Be Easy,” in which Britney, will.i.am, and their AutoTune elves join hands to reflect vacuously on love. Dance music’s lousy with anonymous female hook singers right now, but these two songs transcend DJ filler because Britney never soft-pedals her voice’s uneasy layering of girly and libidinous. They’re based more in tension than release.
Britney’s tradition of messing with pop forms goes back at least 10 years, to the genre-splicing ”Toxic.” As often as she might withhold tabloid fodder from her lyrics, she puts a lot of trust in her producers. That translates to the weird and wonderful intimacy of ”Alien,” a gently pulsing track in which an actual extraterrestrial finally realizes she’s ”not alone,” and repeats the phrase until it is pitchshifted up like a departing space ship.
It also gives rise to less subtle pleasures, like the first single, ”Work Bitch,” a fabulous if campy dance track, and the bass bomb ”Tik Tik Boom,” in which Brit tells a lewd T.I., ”you got a sex siren in your face.” Alienation lurks in those songs, too — which naturally gives Brit’s duet with her younger sister Jamie Lynn, the morphing ballad ”Chillin’ With You,” a special poignancy. All we really learn is that Britney prefers red wine, and Jamie Lynn, white. But we share their warm, tipsy feeling all the same. B+
”Perfume” – A stalker fantasy that soars
”Chillin” With You” – A touching sibling duet
(Britney Jean is currently streaming on iTunes)