Britney Spears’ new album Britney Jean is streaming in its entirety via iTunes right now, a week ahead of its release. The record’s been met with plenty of interest — it’s Spears’ first since Jive Records went belly up, and it’s her latest bid to reclaim the Queen of Pop throne she ceded to latter-day starlets like Katy Perry and Taylor Swift. But is it any good? You’ll be delighted to know that our benighted music editor Tom Hawking listened to the thing so you don’t have to. Click through to read his second-by-second breakdown. And pray for him.
0:00 OK, here we go. Track one: “Alien.”
0:01 Backwards vocal loops. Vaguely World of Echo-y. Promising.
0:10 Fade in big mid-’90s trance-y synths. Less promising.
0:20 Vocals. “There was a time I was one of a kind/ Lost in the world.” Something about being an alien. “I tried but I never figured it out/ I always felt like a stranger in a crowd.”
0:53 “The stars in the sky look like home/ Take me home.”
1:20 The beat here is pretty innocuous and low-impact. This isn’t such a terrible thing, to be honest — in a world of Bangerz, a modicum of restraint actually gives the song more dynamic range. The synths keep threatening to ramp up into a big EDM-style drop, but they haven’t yet.
2:20 “The light in the stars tell me that I’m not alone.” Aw. You kind of are, though, Britney.
3:24 Key point here: this is one of the three tracks on the album that doesn’t feature production from Beezlebub, Lord of the Flies and Fell Demon Prince of the Underworld will.i.am. Instead, the lead producer is William Orbit — remember him? And, indeed, there’s something of Ray of Light-era Madonna about this.
4:00 It doesn’t suck, is what I’m saying.
4:01 Track two is “Work Bitch,” i.e. the song we’ve heard before. If you’re interested in Britney Spears, you’ve presumably already heard this, so let’s just discreetly skip forward to track three and never speak of this EDM-by-numbers pile of shit again.
8:04 Track three is “Perfume,” which you’ve probably also heard before.
8:11 Let it be said, though, that as far as big ol’ power ballads go, this falls into the ranks of the generally tolerable rather than the songs-I-would-claw-my-eyes-out-rather-than-hear-again (i.e. “My Heart Will Go On”).
10:00 The whole “I hope she smells my perfume” idea is desperately sad, too, when you think about it — the lyric takes the perspective of a girl whose boyfriend is sleeping around, and the most she can hope for is that his lover is reminded of her existence?
10:05 Spears co-wrote this with Sia, by the way.
10:56 It’s hard to imagine Spears herself sitting by the phone, waiting for someone to call, but who knows? Either way, it seems notable that this is the second of the three songs so far on this record to speak from a position of alienation and vulnerability.
12:03 Track four. It’s called “It Should Be Easy,” and it features vocals from will.i.am and production from David Guetta. Gulp.
12:04 OK, this bass riff isn’t awful.
12:15 Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeere come the big swirly synth pads.
12:19 Robot Auto-Tune Britney vocals.
12:30 A restrained kickdrum. This is like having your head on the executioner’s block, waiting for it to be separated from your body. The drop is coming. It’s just a question of when.
12:53 Dear god, will.i.am is singing. “It should be easy/ It shouldn’t be complicated.” The upside: at least it means he’s not rapping.
13:07 JUST DO IT ALREADY FOR THE LOVE OF GOD.
13:10 … and the bloody axe falls.
13:13 Farty mosquito synth!
13:25 “If there was a scale from one to ten/ Then my love for you is a million billion” is an actual lyric in this song.
14:03 Honestly, the less said about the rest of this song, the better.
15:00 No, really.
15:30 Your correspondent breathes a sigh of relief, as do his ears. On to track five: “Tik Tik Boom,” featuring T.I. (but not, sadly, a sample from DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s “Boom! Shake The Room”).
15:35 Dear god, Britney’s gone… chiptune?
15:47 No, wait. The curious Commodore 64 game soundtrack intro gives way to a pretty standard pop/R&B backing track — acoustic guitar sample, and all that.
16:14 Here’s the beat. It’s bass-heavy and club-friendly, but not, happily, in a David Guetta sort of way. Britney, meanwhile, is singing about how her intended makes her “tik tik tik tik boom/ Not too slow/ Not too quick.” Ooh, matron.
16:42 More love-related angst: “Why you wanna flaunt it? Why you wanna flaunt it? Let me get up on it?”
17:16 Verse… chorus… etc.
17:26 Here’s T.I., doing his best token-randy-guy-who-gets-the-middle-eight rap. “Come here for a minute, let me taste you baby.” Oh, you.
17:38 “She like it when I eat her/ Beat her/ Beat her/ Treat her like an animal/ Somebody call Peter.” Um.
17:55 And back to the chorus. As an aside: I wonder how much T.I. gets paid for a 30-second verse?
18:24 One of the laudable things about this record: love them or hate them, at least the songs don’t overstay their welcome, something of a rarity in this era of 20/20 Experience-style pop behemoths. The entire record is about 36 minutes long, which means the songs average out at just over three-and-a-half minutes each. They’re pop songs, in other words. And “Tik Tik Boom” was quite a decent one.
18:25 And here’s the next one. “Body Ache,” prod., inter alia, Guetta and will.i.am. Hold me.
18:28 Straight into the pulsing trance beat and a big filter sweep down to the verse. Breathing deeply here.
18:45 “I want to dance ’til my body ache/ A little bit longer/ Turn you on make you radiate/ A little bit…” Oh, go on, guess.
18:46 Yes, “stronger.”
19:07 The drums go to quarters, then eights, then sixteenths, gathering themselves for… you’ll never guess…
19:08 THE DROP. But if “It Should Be Easy” was a blunt axe, this is more like getting hit by a toddler wielding one of those balloon dogs.
19:11 Seriously, it takes a special sort of evil genius to conceive of a synth sound like this. It’s sort of half Super Mario Bros. and half spring break Ibiza beach party.
19:40 Back to the intro. Like, exactly.
19:55 And again, only with ominous-sounding Alice Deejay synths starting to worm their way into the mix.
20:10 Wow — it’s a four-bar breakdown of the evil spring break synth of poolside destruction. No one needs this. NO ONE.
20:40 The middle eight, aka the “Fuck, we don’t have any ideas for this bit — what if we just get that ‘You make my body ache’ vocal sample and screw with it a bit? That’ll do, right?”
21:32 Back to what I was saying before about the brevity of the songs here — it still holds true, but “Body Ache” manages to repeat itself several times and outstay its welcome over the course of less than three-and-a-half minutes. Which is quite an impressive achievement, really.
21:53 Next track. More clubby influences, this time underpinning a nearly a cappella “Like a Prayer”-esque intro. “I’m blind from the tears that fall like rain/ So lost ever since you went away/ Sometimes our lives forever change/ My heart’s never gonna be the sa-a-a-ame.”
22:25 Drums. Meh.
22:39 The chorus. Dear god. It’s… well, it’s the sort of anthemic banger that gets played by DJs at clubs where they serve alarming-colored drinks in those yard-long plastic things. And as if that’s not enough, each line is punctuated by the sort of novelty synth effect generally favored by toddlers who’ve just gotten a Fisher-Price Baby’s First Synth for Christmas. Yes, of course, the evil one has a hand in this.
24:00 Reasonably inoffensive breakdown.
24:56 There’s not really a lot more to say here…
25:16 …except MY EARS ARGGGGGHHHHHHHHH
25:33 Track eight, aka the last respite from the clammy hand of will.i.am. Instead, this track is produced by… Diplo. Sigh.
25:38 “Ethnic” sounds. SHOCKER.
25:55 More chiptune-y synths, too. What is going on here?
26:12 Still, say what you like about Diplo as a person (spoiler: he’s a dick), but the man can produce a track. This is a simple hip hop beat with a distorted guitar sample and the weird chiptune synth lending some measure of color, without distracting from Britney’s vocals.
26:40 “I want you to take the wheel/ I’ve never been a passenger before/ I never knew how good it would feel.” Has Britney been listening to the Arcade Fire?
27:00 Seriously, though, assuming she wrote these lyrics — it’s hard to tell, because every track has a legion of co-writers (in this case, including both Sia and Katy Perry) — it’s interesting to hear her sing about her difficulty trusting people. With the surfeit of people who’ve fucked her over during the course of her career, one can certainly sympathize.
28:22 “This is living! This is living! This is liviiiiiiiiiing!”
28:48 This is… fine. It’s not revolutionary, it’s not amazing, but it’s a perfectly competent and inoffensive pop song. THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU DON’T LET WILL.I.AM ANYWHERE NEAR YOUR TRACKS.
29:13 Sadly, though, he’s back for the album’s last two songs. First up: “Chillin’ With You,” a duet with Britney’s younger sister Jamie Lynn Spears.
29:20 Ooh, an acoustic guitar!
29:30 The guitar’s a bit of a bait-and-switch — it drops out of the mix as soon as Britney starts singing — but this is OK so far. It’s a relatively restrained and rather pretty late night ballad. SO FAR.
29:47 There’s a bit of self-referentialism, too — the line “I danced so much ’til I was tired,” while grammatically questionable, seems to be a reference to “Body Ache.”
30:14 “I’m feeling alright ‘cos I don’t got to worry about a thing.” Awwwww.
30:24 Gathering storm clouds. Uh oh, it sounds like a drop is coming.
30:27 Wait, what?
30:28 The beat switches to a sort of weird hip hop hybrid, the tempo changes, and Britney’s singing “I’m chillin’/ I’m chillin’/ When I’m wit’ chu” in a sort of faux-Da Brat accent. Um.
30:47 I guess that was the… chorus? To be honest, it sounds like something from here.
31:30 Same again. Honestly, someone needs to examine will.i.am’s cerebral pathology. What can it all mean?
32:52 And finally, the last track. There’s a veritable army of producers here, but they’re led by, yes, will.i.am. Batten down the hatches, kids.
32:58 Muted guitar arpeggios.
33:26 The verse: more curious bobbling synths, and Britney singing “If they tell me it’s over, I wouldn’t believe it.” Insert own joke here.
33:52 Chorus. Still nothing ear-bleedingly awful. He’s toying with us, I tell you. TOYING WITH US.
34:05 More chorus. Fuck you, will.i.am, I’m not falling for this. You’re just waiting around the corner with your +5 Farty Synth of Death. I see you. You’re going to jump on me at the end of the chorus.
34:18 Nope. More whistling.
34:32 Back to the verse. Portentous reverb-laden kick drum sound. Hmmmm.
35:03 Chorus. Identical to the first chorus. Yawn.
35:29 Wait, it looks like we’re going to get out of this without will.i.am taking a final valedictory dump in our ears! Result!
35:40 A muted and curiously anticlimactic end to the album, with Britney singing “Dry your tears/ Don’t cry, cry, cry.” And then the song just stops. No fade-out, no extended outro.
35:56 We made it! Woohoo! First listen verdict: Britney Jean‘s not gonna restore Britney to pop-tastic primacy, but it’s not awful, either. And let’s never speak of will.i.am again.