The road to Glory is paved with gold.
Over the weekend, Britney Spears‘ ninth studio album, set to officially release this Friday (Aug. 26, 2016), leaked. It was the latest unfortunate event in a string of unfortunate events that, together, become The (Mildly-Disastrous) Glory Album Rollout Campaign. So it was with a mix of excitement and fear — and I will admit to feeling more of the latter than the former — that I pressed play. Here are my resulting thoughts.
Beginning with 2007’s Blackout, released in the midst of her painful public breakdown, Spears retreated from her music, allowing producers and management to make decisions that, though they may have reflected the best possible outcome given the available resources, began to dilute The Britney Spears Brand. Her albums became increasingly disjointed and directionless, and it often felt like Spears (or her backup singers, or the computers pretending to imitate her) was simply going through the motions, and barely even that. That disconnect was used to great effect on Blackout, where her dead-eyed, autotuned delivery worked not only in concert with the urban dance productions but as commentary on Spears’ own public persona at the time. On subsequent releases, however, Spears’ lack of interest in her own music became frustrating. Circus, released just over a year after Blackout, had a couple of big hits and a few decent deep cuts but was otherwise uneven. For the most part, not counting singles like “Til the World Ends” and “I Wanna Go,” 2011’s Femme Fatale made embarrassing use of proto-EDM trends and lacked almost totally the personality of its maker. But Spears’ discography reached its nadir with 2013’s Britney Jean, her lowest-selling album. Britney Jean seemed to confirm the worst of our fears: that Spears had completely checked out, that she no longer had any interest in being a pop star, and that she was releasing music only because those behind-the-scenes felt they could make a quick buck on the strength of her name. To this day, some fans insist the bulk of the vocals on Britney Jean were performed not by Spears, but by her backup singer, Myah Marie. That she followed that abysmal album with last year’s even-more-abysmal “Pretty Girls,” a one-off single featuring an already-on-the-decline Iggy Azalea, did not inspire much confidence that Spears, almost a decade after burning out, was capable of or interested in turning it around.
So when Spears shared the news that her ninth studio album, Glory, would be released this August, the usual aura of excitement was tempered with a fan-led chorus of “Please, please, please let it be better than Britney Jean” — a low bar, to be sure, but one not guaranteed to be cleared.
It is with genuine surprise and great pleasure that I declare: Glory is Spears’ best album since either Blackout or 2003’s In the Zone, depending on who you ask. (For my money, In The Zone, brimming as it is with Spears’ personality, energy, and enthusiasm, remains her masterpiece.)
This was not a conclusion I expected to reach. Glory‘s promotional campaign, so far, has severely failed the quality of the album, and I hope its missteps do not deter people from giving the album the chance it deserves. After announcing Glory last month, fans launched a petition for Spears’ label to change the album cover, a tacky move that, though well-intentioned, distracted from the excitement of the announcement. Later, fans launched yet another petition calling for the release of the original “Make Me…” video, which was shelved for reasons that remain unclear. (The video Spears did release was not well received.) Meanwhile, “Make Me…” made a lukewarm debut at No. 17 on the Hot 100 and then fell out of the Top 40 the following week. Finally, promotional singles like the awkward “Clumsy,” the chorus-less “Do You Wanna Come Over?” and the grating “Private Show” seemed to hint that Glory was on track to become Britney Jean 2: It Gets Worse, Bitch!
Most of the pre-release tracks, it turns out, were red herrings, with only lead single “Make Me…” serving as a proper taste of what was to come. Like “Make Me…,” songs like “Just Luv Me,” “Love Me Down,” and “Better” borrow heavily from current radio trends: minimalist RnB, the epidemic known as tropical house, and straightforward dance-pop. Specifically, threads of Justin Bieber‘s “Sorry” and “Where Are Ü Now” and Selena Gomez‘s “Good For You” and “Hands to Myself” can be found braided into the DNA of Glory. (This is only fair, as both Bieber and Gomez have repeatedly and unapologetically jacked from Spears in the building of their superstar careers.)
For the most part, Glory is obsessed with sex: its pleasures and its pitfalls. Spears lays it all out there on the sultry, pulsing opening track, “Invitation,” on which she purrs, “I know it might seem crazy / but I’mma put you in this blindfold / I just need you to trust me” and implores her lover to “put your love all over me.” That trend continues on tracks like “Make Me…,” “Private Show,” “Just Luv Me,” “Do You Wanna Come Over,” “Slumber Party,” “Love Me Down,” and most of the rest of the album. She leaves the bedroom only a few times, such as on the bittersweet bubblegum lament “Man on the Moon,” a song that recalls, in its naïve wistfulness, songs from her first two albums. On “Just Like Me,” Spears stumbles upon a lover with another woman, who — twist! — is a dead-ringer for Spears. She puts a man on blast in the bombastic, blues-tinged “Liar,” a track that is somewhat out of place on this more subdued set, but that is nonetheless highly catchy and enjoyable. Otherwise, Spears’ only ambition seems to be to get down and have fun.
The album breaks no new ground either sonically or lyrically, but that’s fine; one does not come to Britney Spears to encounter the avant-garde. Still, some of these songs are experimental within the context of Spears’ oeuvre. “Private Show,” a bizarre little doo-wop striptease, pushes Spears’ voice to the extremes of parody over production that recalls a Nokia ringtone circa 2004. (It may be an experiment, but it is not a successful one.) Its only relative on Glory is Standard Edition closer “What You Need,” a sassy bubblegum-slash-“soul” romp that again puts Spears’ voice — not historically her greatest asset! — front and center. Despite its awkwardness, it is ultimately more successful than “Private Show,” not least because, at the end, after horns cut out, Spears proclaims, “That was fun!” It is in that moment you realize that — maybe, just maybe — she’s in on the joke. For a pop star who often appears so uncomfortable with her own fame, it’s soothing to see her embrace it with a smirk.
“Coupure Électrique,” which closes the Deluxe Edition, is a brief and breathy comedown sung entirely in French. It explicitly references Blackout in its title (“Coupure Électrique” literally means “blackout”) and more subtly in its vocal icy vocal processing. And as further proof her well-earned status as an international superstar, Spears also dabbles a little in Spanish-language sing-song on “Change Your Mind (No Seas Cortes).”
The very best moments on the album, however, are those in which Spears simply lends her newly-reinvigorated personality and her voice — her real voice! — to well-produced and well-written songs that would, and hopefully will, find a home on today’s radio. Over a bubbly, lightly reggae-ish beat, the euphoric chorus of album highlight “Slumber Party” —”We got them candles hanging from the ceiling low / we use our bodies to make our own videos / put on the music that makes us go fucking crazy though / like a slumber party” — is effortlessly sexy and playful. “Just Luv Me” could very easily have been a smash from Selena Gomez’s Revival, and I can see it being a smash for Spears, too. “Love Me Down” starts out a a little shaky with a slightly-dated dub-step production in the verses, but it eventually finds its footing in the pre-chorus and in the breakdown. “Better,” a direct descendant of Bieber’s “Sorry,” feels like a Song of Summer that got away.
Throughout, Spears sounds more present, more engaged, and more involved than she has since In the Zone. And that makes sense because Glory has more in common with In the Zone than any other Spears album. There is a sort of frantic energy that runs through both projects; it’s a mixture of burning desire, playful sexuality, and most importantly, a sense of exploration and a willingness to commit to the b(r)it. I would hesitate to call either album cohesive, but I would argue that their lack of cohesion is part of their charm, part of what makes them, inherently, products of The Britney Spears Vision. Ah, vision: that thing that has been lacking from Spears’ work for the better part of a decade. Against all odds, Spears has returned to herself. Somewhere along the line, she regained control: of her voice, of her music, of her message, of her vision. What’s more, though, is that for the first time in a very long time, it seems she enjoys embracing that control.
Released nearly 20 years into her career, Glory is better than most of us thought it would be. More impressively, it is better than it has any right or need to be, given the phases of life and career in which Spears now finds herself. Its greatness serves as a reminder: when it comes to pop greats, you can count them down but never out.
Best Songs Include: “Slumber Party,” “Man on the Moon,” Just Luv Me,” “Just Like Me,” and more.