Like Wile E. Coyote realizing too late that he's walked off a cliff and is standing on thin air, "Britney Jean," the new studio album from Britney Spears, is marked with so many sleights of hand, dubious lyrics and bombastic but boringly simple melodies that the too-rare levitation of its better moments seems an animation trick.
Item one: "It Should Be Easy," a song that practically wallows in its own failure. Featuring a cameo by the album's executive producer, will.i.am, the track casts doubt on his utility, as evidenced by these lazy lines: "Love, it should be easy / It shouldn't be complicated / It should be easy." Deep insight, indeed, augmented with the rocky syllabic mess in the chorus' kicker: "I don't know how or where else to say it." Here's an idea: Rather than surrender and admit you don't know how to say it, follow the advice in "Work Bitch" and "work hard, like it's your profession."
Such potholes dot "Britney Jean," which the 32-year-old Spears has described as her most personal and open album yet. The singer co-wrote many of the songs, which traces the ups and downs of a life spent in and out of love.
But if this is Britney in revelation mode, there's very little beneath the album's many cliches to suggest insight, let alone the unfiltered honesty of autobiography. Much of "Britney Jean" devolves into an abyss of electro-neutral bangers produced by the reigning kings of danceable obviousness, Will.i.am and David Guetta.
"Passenger" features Spears' voice so digitally overworked that she doesn't sound like herself, her recognizable tone infused with some weird nasality that unintentionally suggests an android Betty Boop. Elsewhere, in "Perfume," her perfectly manipulated pitch sings, "I'm going to mark my territory," an unfortunate choice of words given the metaphor's less flattering origins in the animal world.
"Body Ache" lazily pairs sex and sweaty dancing with fifth-grader rhymes: "I know you feel my fire/Draw you into my flame/Tonight we take it higher/What I got ain't no game." "Til It's Gone" is so unspecific as to be laughable. "I'm blind from the tears that fall like rain," she sings, unconcerned or unaware that this leaden simile contradicts the notion that real emotional energy was expelled in writing words so seemingly "personal."
It all adds up to a drag, considering the shimmering promise of the first track, "Alien." Filled with cool UFO sounds and vast-as-the-cosmos echo, the song introduces our heroine by acknowledging self-obsession in her past through a voice so coated in electronic effects that it's rendered nearly pixilated.
Produced by the effervescent electronic stylist William Orbit, best known for his work with Madonna (most notably on "Ray of Light"), that first song bumps with catchy rhythm. The only track on the album to feature Orbit's production, it introduces a confident Spears doing what she does best: inhabiting a seductive, if shallow, space within perfectly imagined, seamlessly constructed electronic pop songs.
Unfortunately, "Alien" is the outlier on "Britney Jean." The bedroom-personal "Tik Tik Boom," an otherwise killer instrumental track that features rapper T.I., frantic snares and a crawling dubby rhythm, is mired in silly lyrics about dynamite and exploding sex. That leaves us with a lot of bloat, programmed with half-hearted tropes of the dance floor, pumped out as a sonic commodity.
"You'll never know what you've got 'til it's gone," she repeats on "'Til It's Gone," which finds the singer seemingly running on fumes lyrically with few interesting ideas to communicate. Whatever unique skills Spears once had — what were they again, anyway? — "Britney Jean" suggests she better prepare herself for the reality that she's losing them fast.
One and a half stars out of four