Music

album review | analysis

Britney Spears sounds like she’s having fun again

Britney Spears performing in Las Vegas in May.
Mario Anzuoni/Reuters
Britney Spears performing in Las Vegas in May.

Britney Spears’s career trajectory has probably kept various journalistic enterprises afloat over the past 18 years. From the raised eyebrows that accompanied her schoolgirl-gone-bad outfit in the “. . .Baby One More Time” video to her 55-hour marriage to childhood friend Jason Alexander in 2004, the messy breakdown she suffered in public during the late 2000s, and the still-active conservatorship that followed, Spears has spawned exclamation-point-emblazoned tabloid coverlines and breathless blog posts. And that doesn’t even take into account the redemption-minded pieces that have accompanied her post-2010 existence, which includes probably the crowning achievement for any American pop star: a Las Vegas residency, “Britney: Piece of Me,” which has been packing the Planet Hollywood Casino’s Axis Auditorium since late 2013.

That show, however, probably would not exist were she merely Britney the tabloid fixture. Britney the pop star — defined by a snake-slither voice, always-on sexiness, and ability to stretch vowels far beyond their natural breaking point — has fronted a series of dynamite singles that both inadvertently and deliberately mirrored the themes of post-millennial pop. Spears’s Max Martin-penned debut single “. . .Baby One More Time” was a teen-pop flag plant, its wah-wah guitar and storming piano only serving to emphasize how loneliness could, conceivably, kill a person. “Lucky,” from Spears’s second album, seemed to presage her eventual tumult, telling the story of a young star who “cry, cry, cries in her lonely heart” over a bouncy beat.

“I’m a Slave 4 U,” from 2001, found her growing up in public, its jittery beat supplied by the forward-thinking production duo the Neptunes; “Toxic,” from 2003, combined electro-shock guitars with spy-movie splendor. The glitchy “Piece of Me,” off 2007’s breakdown chronicle “Blackout,” chided the tabloids for their push-pull relationship with their subjects; “Till the World Ends” turned the apocalypse into a Spears-led dance party.

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Now, there’s “Glory,” Spears’s ninth album and first since 2013’s will.i.am-produced “Britney Jean.” The new album, released on Aug. 26, succeeds where its predecessor stumbled, song-wise: It sounds relatively unencumbered by expectations, the result, perhaps, of “Britney Jean” making a soft landing on the charts and on radio. While there are saps to relatively current trends — “Love Me Down” has her mimicking former duet partner Iggy Azalea by way of Fergie’s pout, “Slumber Party” backs Spears’s coos with a gentle reggae-inspired beat, and the slow seduction “Make Me” features white rapper of the moment G-Eazy — most of “Glory” operates in its own pop space.

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If it had been unearthed from a time capsule, “Glory” would feel more like a credible companion album to Spears’s 2003 album, “In the Zone,” which spawned “Toxic” and Spears’s torch-passing duet with Madonna, “Me Against the Music,” than a pop superstar’s major release in 2016. In part, that’s because of callbacks to Spears’s past offerings. The flirty “Do You Wanna Come Over?” — part booty call, part call for more human connection — is jolted to life by the slashed guitars that helped make “Toxic” a pop thrill, while the “bayyy-beee” Spears drawls before the pre-chorus of the sparse, paranoid “Just Like Me” reaches all the way back to her beginnings.

But more importantly, the album has an unbridled energy that’s refreshing in late summer 2016, when pop-radio playlists are dominated by a hungover malaise where interactions are guarded, and potential romantic partnerships viewed skeptically at best, or as transactions in the making at worst. One might think that devil-may-care attitude comes from Spears being past 30 and not needing to impress callous youth (or radio programmers) anymore, but that’d be a misguided impulse. Spears’s best singles were marked by a desperation born of wanting to go all in: “my loneliness is killing me,” “I’m addicted to you, don’t you know that you’re toxic,” heck, even “gimme more.” The high points on “Glory” — “Do You Wanna Come Over?,” the blissed-out “Man on the Moon,” the jumpy “Clumsy,” and the buzzing, hopped-up bonus track “If I’m Dancing” — echo that spirit. If Spears isn’t belting Celine-style, at least she’s throwing herself fully into her vocal performances, so that others will follow full-throated.

Spears has a kooky side, as evidenced by her social-media postings, which include photos of fun with her two sons (Sean and Jayden, now 10 and 9) alongside shots of her and her “Piece of Me” dancers sticking out their tongues. (There’s also the occasional inspirational quote.) “Glory” honors that impulse with campy tracks like “Private Show,” fronted by a winking, bravado-filled performance that makes one wonder what Spears would be like at a karaoke bar, and the horn-accented “What You Need,” which could be a revue’s show-closing “Toxic” reprise.

“That was fun,” Spears shrugs at the latter song’s end. One could say the same about “Glory,” a pop album that operates on its own terms, partly thanks to the way the white-hot notoriety of the star at its center allowed her to, after all these years, rule her own pop fiefdom.

Britney Spears performs on the MTV Video Music Awards on Aug. 28 at 8 p.m.

Maura Johnston can be reached at maura@
maura.com
.