When last we heard from Britney Spears, she sounded like an Auto-Tuned sexbot. Back in 2011, I wrote, "On Femme Fatale—a hypnotic, grinding, relentless excursion into Euro-style techno-pop—you'll find but one, and only one, subject: sex."
Now she's traded her coyly mechanical, conscience-free carnality for something more confessional. In fact, she's been describing her eighth effort, Britney Jean (reportedly a family nickname), as her most personal project yet. She told Entertainment Tonight, "I would say it was kind of like therapy for me, this whole album. It just kind of transformed me. Like, this is my perspective, and then as you write something your perspective changes and after you're done writing something … for the better."
And so sex isn't the only subject matter that matters to her anymore. That's great. But that said, we probably shouldn't confuse confessional with chaste.
"Alien" deems celebrity an isolating experience that Britney describes in terms of feeling like an extraterrestrial ("There was a time I was one of a kind/Lost in the world out of me, myself and I/Was lonely then, like an alien/I tried, but I never figured it out/Why I always felt like a stranger in a crowd"). Finding love, she says, helped her escape that isolation ("The light in your eyes lets me know I'm not alone").
"Passenger" (written by Katy Perry, Sia and Diplo) revels in learning to trust again, telling a strong lover, "There was a time without trust/There was a time without love/But it took you to show me/I could hand over the keys/ … 'Cause I want you to take the wheel." "It Should Be Easy" insists that love "shouldn't be complicated." Elsewhere on that romantic track, Britney imagines a bright—normal—future with a man who's stolen her heart ("I've got visions/Boy, I've got visions of me and you/Happily just living").
On the other end of the romantic spectrum, "Til It's Gone" gives value to the stability of a good relationship, albeit after it dissolves: "'Cause you came/And you gave me a place/Place to lay all my pain/Why'd you take it away?/You never know what you got 'til it's gone." Meanwhile, on "Don't Cry," Britney refuses to give in to post-relationship grief with, "Our love is gone, but I'll survive."
References to faith and prayer turn up on romance-affirming iTunes bonus tracks "Brightest Morning Star" and "Now That I Found You." On the former we hear, "I lift up my hands and pray, 'cause life's tough sometimes/But I will not lose faith, 'cause you will lead the way." The latter tells us, "I have come alive/I am blown away/I have found the love/I can see the truth/ … I can live my life/I believe in faith/I have found myself."
Britney Jean's first single, "Work B‑‑ch," is also its most explicit, at least as far as language is concerned. The titular vulgarity is repeated 20 times as Britney sings about what it takes to be rich, famous and beautiful ("You wanna hot body/You wanna Bugatti/You wanna Maserati/You better work, b‑‑ch"). She also brags, "I bring the trouble/ … I am the bad b‑‑ch."
"Perfume" finds her playing the part of an insecure woman who fears her new boyfriend is still sleeping with his ex. To combat that insecurity, she sings, "And while I wait, I put on my perfume/Yeah, I want it all over you/I gotta mark my territory/ … I hope she smells my perfume." "Body Ache" suggestively describes Britney's aching to connect physically with someone.
Rapper T.I. blows up "Tik Tik Boom," all but obliterating its morality. First, Britney teases him suggestively, "You got sex siren in your face/Let me get up on/ … Talk dirty to me, babe, every time I want it/ … Been thinking maybe could it/Make me scream his name?" She instructs her lover, "Not too slow, not too quick," before T.I. chimes in with lines that are, for the most part, too explicit to reprint here, using the s-word and graphic references to oral sex. His S&M shout-out caustically blares, "Beat her, beat her/Treat her like animal, somebody call PETA." He uses crude slang for breasts and compares getting naked and having sex to the aforementioned "explosion."
"It Should Be Easy" defines a woman's warm feelings about a relationship in Buddhist terms ("You bring me Zen, yes, you bring me Zen"). Alcohol is a part of the good times on "Chillin' With You," with perhaps quite a bit of vino going down the hatch ("I drank some red wine/And now I'm walking on the sky").
Britney Spears is 31. She's been married twice. She has two children. In other words, she's been around long enough and been around the block enough times to perhaps begin singing about something other than just smoldering sensuality.
And there are indeed hints that she is maybe beginning to move in that direction. We catch more than a few glimpses of genuine joy and deep disappointment as she chronicles her romantic endeavors, emotions sometimes even explored for short stints without them being linked to sex.
Then again, this is Britney Spears we're talking about. Motherhood and maudlin maturity notwithstanding, she's still more than a little reluctant to abandon the sexed-up image she's cultivated for more than a decade now. It's an image that's reinforced by her posing topless for her album cover photo (cropped a bit more for this review than it is on most store shelves). And it's an image the selection of siren songs found inside continue to pay homage to.