Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Glory | Britney Spears

The title of Britney Spears' ninth studio album is an interesting one, isn't it? Especially for a Britney Spears who, during her last album cycle, was considered the furthest she's ever been from her glory days. Remember when she grabbed hold of as an executive producer, then overshadowed the already hopeless Britney Jean with a headlining spot on the Vegas strip? Yeah, it was bad. It was by that point, I think, most of us had long set low expectations for the stage presence and career moves of the former reigning figurehead of pop music; if she got on stage, moved her lips and bobbed her head to some of her old hits, and called some of her new material "pretty cool," we were happy.

After throwing her eighth album in the bin (the three dollar discount bin, that is) before it was even released, she flirted with an unspoken commitment to improvement in coordination with that extravaganza of a Planet Hollywood residency. Although she failed to flaunt it in the music video for this album's lead single, she can dance again  the one element of her career that once put her far above the rest in the crowd  and has adopted the attitude of a Hollywood legend. She's grown elusive, inattentive to most media reactions, and generally impenitent. It's a similar attitude that has kept Cher's career on the move for the past decade and Mariah Carey's on life support for the past five years – maybe it's jarring for many people who grew up with her tunes because Spears moved her career into autopilot mode at a much younger age than most.

I'd like to think that we as a society have enabled to this transformation, though, accepting her as a legend and more importantly, as an entertainer, and I'd also like to think most of us are comfortable with the idea. Nowadays, we expect her to entertain through her back catalog of Billboard chart-toppers, not sing with precision over the cutting edge of pop. I think I speak for a lot of pop fans when I say our expectations are still low, albeit achievable, for Ms. Britney Spears. But with an album title like Glory, she makes the implication to be better – to take her career to the heights it once reached. Launching the album campaign with a last-minute video for the slow-burning lead single to replace a scrapped David LaChapelle shoot and a cover made using a screenshot from said last-minute video sure is a funny way of fulfilling that promise, but I still had some faith in our Britney during the build-up for this album.

Why? Well, let's not kid ourselves here: from her sophomore record until her seventh, Britney Spears delivered some pretty solid albums. And if well-established pop acts have taught us anything, it's that everybody stumbles over some duds. Jennifer Lopez has a few. Christina Aguilera's discography is full of them. Hell, Cher has over two dozen albums to her name and a fair amount of them were commercial and critical disasters. So given lessons from pop music past, I suppose Britney's chances of a bounce-back from 2013's misstep were in her favor – and three years later, here we are. To say the least, if Circus was the rebirth of an icon, then Glory is her third coming: one that does not break boundaries, but one that proves she is still worthy of our attention.

On Glory, Spears delivers digestible three-minute bangers that reek of love and lust. Like a one night stand in the form of an album, it's fun but lacks all of the personal touches. Once upon a time, Britney delivered songs that recorded her transitions from teen idol to young woman to the lead headline on the front page of the National Enquirer. Her tracks were, at the very least, convincing. But now, as a 34-year-old mother of two with a booked schedule, it's hard to believe she has 14 to 21 minute sessions of "seven minutes in heaven" at slumber parties or puts on private shows for the hottest men on the block. These tracks are like tame Fifty Shades of Grey chapters; more fantasy, less reality.

No more than fictional storytelling should have been expected, though. After all, personal affairs have been off-topic for Spears since her infamous breakdown in the mid-aughts, which has become the elephant in the room since her recovery and image revival. Her first five albums gave us explicit insight to her life: maturity, growth, sex, men, assertiveness... she spilled it all, even though her public turmoil. But in the aftermath – even now, ten years after the fact – Britney has yet to deliver a solidified statement on her life through her music. Although often considered a promise of her stability, Circus never guaranteed such a thing. In 2008, all we knew was that she had a head full of blonde hair and a smile plastered on her face; good enough for us, right? The last Britney track to give a glimpse of genuine personality was the tailor-made "Piece of Me." That was ten years ago. From that point forward, she has simply churned out color-by-numbers love and party tracks – and damn fine ones, at that. So to expect more at this point would have been foolish, yes?

Another post-2007 tradition for Spears, she doesn't stray far from the status quo. Once again, this could be a side effect of the need to reinstate her legacy not once, but now twice; she doesn't have the leverage to reinvent the wheel like she did earlier in her career. So this time around, she spikes the sexy, pouty template that she can be accredited to popularizing circa In the Zone with period-appropriate, dance-fused production. While not as supercharged as, say, Femme Fatale was in regards to production, this album could qualify as the louder, uninhibited step-cousin of Selena Gomez's Revival and Demi Lovato's Confident: two trend-chasing albums from much younger artists whom Spears herself has undoubtedly influenced. It's a comparison most prevalent on tracks like "Just Luv Me," "Do You Wanna Come Over?," and "Love Me Down," but runs throughout the album.

Spears is oftentimes clocked for lackluster vocal performance, especially thanks to a longstanding reliance on lip-syncing: a practice that most of her contemporaries have discredited. Yet I can recall a period of time when she was the ringleader of a sharply dictated choir in damn near every chorus she came across, and better still, I know of one album cycle that implemented Auto-Tune as an experimental effect on vocals that, in all honestly, oftentimes didn't need it. Now, let's not get it twisted: her critics don't come from a place of complete inaccuracy. In all fairness, she simply existed in her own songs from Circus onward, reaching a true point of despair on her last release; gone was the sharp attack on her phrasing and a genuine feeling of enjoyment. Oh, and allegedly, gone was... well... Britney Spears on her own tracks.

Alas, against all of the odds and to almost everyone's surprise, her vocal presence on this album, for the most part, is the best that it's been in a long while. Okay, sure: she is drowned in thick, syrupy Auto-Tune on the opening track, "Private Show" contains what could be considered the worst vocal production of modern pop music, and less abrasive signs of pitch correction are still present. But elsewhere, she's vocally on par with her older material. For the first time in a long time, she seems to have had fun behind the microphone – the difference is nearly unbelievable. Perhaps most notably on "What You Need," there's an energy in Britney Spears that her studio material has lacked for far too long. I suspect a good dose of digital magic was required to get to this final product, especially as her voice hits its most youthful tone in over a decade, but the attitude behind it all is undeniably pleasing.

So is this the album that Britney Spears is going to be remembered for in twenty years? No, of course not. Her chances of overshadowing the legacy of Oops!... I Did It Again or Blackout are slim to none. Nevertheless, despite a few bumps in the road (namely "Invitation" and "Private Show"), the album displays a level of rigor she hasn't had endured in the studio for years. (I mean, c'mon: tucked away on the deluxe edition is a nod towards Blackout on a disjointed track sang completely in French. There's also a deluxe track that interpolates some bits of Spanish for no clear reason. Our Britney dedicated herself to learning another language for us, people. That's some commitment.) It's a slightly above average pop album in the grand scheme of things, but considering Spears' career trajectory and current state in the court of public opinion, it's certainly a lot better than we all expected. And for that, friends, we give thanks.

Glory is set for release on August 26, 2016 under RCA Records.

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