Body Ache – Britney Spears
35:50 min • RCA • November 29, 2013
Little Bastard reviews
Ok, I’m going to have to start by admitting that I’ve always had a soft spot for Britney. Her first 4 albums showcased her as one of the strongest pop stars of her generation. And like so many of her peers, despite her refusal to sing live and grasp creative control of her career, she still managed to be involved in some of the coolest and most interesting pop around at a time when pop felt like it was at its highest peak in years. The more Britney went off the rails, the more I loved her, and as rumours of a self written album, tentatively called Original Doll, surfaced after the commercial success of In The Zone (arguably the only album she had any creative control over) I was overjoyed at the idea of seeing Britney the artist flourish.
Then her breakdown hit, she shaved her head (in what I thought was quite an amazing Tank Girl-esque move of Pop Royalty rebellion) and Britney the artist was taken out of the public eye, and apart from a few songs (the brilliant ‘It’s Over To You Now’ written by Imogen Heap being one of them) the album was shelved.
Then, when her “people” regained control of her and doped her up to the eyeballs, I felt incredibly sorry for this poor young woman, almost being wheeled out like a performing monkey, even lip syncing some of the spoken sections of her last two tours. Rumours were flying around that she had to have the dance moves fed directly into her ear to be able get through each show, and I honestly thought he career was over. The soundtrack to her breakdown, the brilliantly subversive electro pop of Blackout, was the best album she never wrote, where the hired-in songwriters and producers managed to capture how the world saw Britney better than she was able to do herself. It was a master class in edgy pop, but since then her music has been a strange mess of pop style over identity, producers seemingly throwing as many musical styles as possible at her and hoping one would stick.
Last album Femme Fatale, despite being commercially successful and filled with pop hits, did feel like a juvenile take on who her record company and management WANTED her to be in the modern charts, rather than a progression of how she had been maturing artistically before her collapse. So I didn’t hold out much hope for Britney Jean, seemingly released merely to tie in with the announcement of her Vegas residency. When lead single ‘Work Bitch’ surfaced I was underwhelmed, and I couldn’t quite build up any excitement for the album. So, it will probably surprise you as much as it did me that, against my better judgement, I quite like it. And no, I haven’t banged my head.
One of the biggest surprises for me is opener ‘Alien’, produced by ambient pop maverick William Orbit, although it really sounds nothing like William Orbit at all. And it sets the tone relatively well, despite its mid tempo electronic leanings, as there’s a mature quality to this electro pop track that pervades the whole album. Singing about her celebrity making her feel like an alien, the spacey synths create the perfect ambience for the subject matter. Orbit has expressed his desire to “do something different”, and he’s definitely succeeded on a track that is one of the best thing I’ve heard from Britney in years.
Then there’s ‘Work Bitch’, the album’s lead single! An intentional thank you to her gay fans, it’s a ferocious catwalk thumper that sweats RuPaul from every pore. Co-written and produced by will.i.am and his recent collaborator Anthony Preston, it’s the most commercially current thing here and, I have to be honest, has grown on me a lot. It owes a large debt to the current fashion for Vogue House, specifically the ’90s catwalk music of people like Azealia Banks, but also has producer will.i.am stamped all over it, which for me is both a positive and a negative.
Songwriter of the moment Sia Furler seems to be writing for everybody, and I would feel sonically swamped by her if I didn’t love her so much. She contributes 3 songs to this album, (only 2 appearing on the standard edition), the first one being ‘Perfume’, a lyrically dark but very commercially produced pop ballad about an insecure girlfriend marking her territory by covering herself (and subsequently her man) in her perfume. It’s the next single and rightly so, as it’s probably Britney’s best pop single in years. Co-written by Britney herself, and described by her as a “very personal song”, it’s perhaps not the confession we all expected, but it’s bloody good regardless.
Sonically, the album is still a mixed bag of styles, with a heavy lean to the dance-by-numbers commercial electro that has engulfed the charts for the past few years, largely due to will.i.am serving as executive producer on the album. He features, but luckily only in small amounts, on dance track ‘It Should Be Easy’, which has so much vocoder it makes Spears sound like Madonna circa 2001.
‘Tik Tik Boom’, featuring TI, is like ‘Jewels And Drugs’ by Lady Gaga only on more drugs, and works out more successfully. The highlight for me is one of my favourite divas of dance, Luciana Caporaso, contributing the superb ‘Body Ache’ to the rest of the mature dance pop on the album. It’s without a doubt my favourite thing on here, and has been stuck on repeat since the album first dropped into my inbox. If it’s not a single, there is no justice.
‘Till Its Gone’ is another dance floor thumper, more at home in a hard club set than on a pop dance floor, and it’s certainly the albums heaviest moment. The Sia and Katy Perry track ‘Passenger’, probably better than anything on Katy’s own album Prism, is a decent mid tempo pop song. Despite having the most interesting introduction on the album, it then almost completely changes into a nice but slightly banal pop song, this probably being due to the fact that it’s randomly co produced by American Electronic giant Diplo.
I even like the sibling duet of ‘Chillin’ With You’, sung with Britney’s sister, Jamie Lynn. Starting off as a mid tempo acoustic guitar lead chill out, but then transforming into some bizarre Trap ballad, it’s not the sickly abomination I thought it would be. Break Up ballad ‘Don’t Cry’ ends the album brilliantly, with its electronic, acoustic, R’n’B lilt, and a surprising appearance in the credits by house music supremo Richard Vission.
Spears has a co-writing credit on every track, and whilst most people will probably cynically assume she’s had no more involvement in this than George W Bush did in running America. Maybe it’s my insatiable want to like her that makes me less cynical, but this feels to me like the first album Britney has had any control over since her highly publicised breakdown and heavy sedation. Reminding me heavily of In The Zone, the only album where Britney seemed to be doing what she wanted (and where a few of the songs were penned by her), this is not a return to Britney the Pop Princess, but the dawn of Britney the woman, and regardless of mediocre chart position and public opinion, I do really like every track.
My biggest issue with Britney Jean is it feels too short. At ten songs, it only just manages to step out of EP territory. Incidentally, the deluxe bonus tracks are also brilliant, harking back to the midtempo R’n’B pop of previous albums Britney and the aforementioned In The Zone, and the deluxe feels a lot more like a full album than the standard edition. That said, as someone who has followed Britney’s career through its peaks and troughs, watched her pour her soul into her music and performances and also witnessed her robot-like decent into Stepford Wives hell, Britney Jean is a comforting return. Although, commercially, the more juvenile and hit driven Femme Fatale was seen as more of a success, Britney Jean is the album that will feature more heavily on my iPhone headphones and my DJ decks – not only for its heavier foray into dance music, but also for its maturity and for Britney’s stamp, which has felt strangely absent since her breakdown. Then again, I have always been a bit of a stranger to public opinion.