Hold It Against Me
Till the World Ends
Femme Fatale Tour
Britney Spears' career has followed a curious trajectory. Until the turbulent extremes of the Blackout period, it was her image rather than her carefully manipulated persona that fans fell for. And now it's make-or-break for the singer, Femme Fatale offering the chance to replace 2008's relative flop Circus with fun-time Britney, a recording artist on top of her musical game.
As it turns out, Spears' seventh studio album is part-success and part astounding failure, mixing some of her very best songs with hideous black holes. On first listen it's easy to label the entire thing a horrific collection of Auto-Tune and vacant beats aping Ke$ha, Basshunter and The Lonely Island; but get a few plays in and it begins to reveal itself. For every Carry On lyric (Hold It Against Me), tone-lowering will.i.am appearance (Big Fat Bass) and drawn-out analogy (Gasoline), there's something like an Up 'n' Down, a track which samples Inner City's 1988 classic Good Life. It represents a moment where pop almost eats itself, but instead reincarnates into a cutting, filthily obnoxious chorus as Spears curtly drawls, "I know you want me like kids want candy." Sadly, that humour doesn't always work out so well.
Inside Out's tight coil and sub-bass almost hide its dreary subject matter - Spears namelessly alludes to an ex who "drove me crazy", but instead of being an exercise in nostalgia it comes off as patronising, low-level staging by her writers. But to balance that there's Criminal with its teenage lyrics (Spears describes an old flame as a "bum bum bum"), on top of a fairytale flute melody and a rhythm so summery it manages to completely set itself free from the rest of the album. But Femme Fatale is not just nostalgia - Trip to Your Heart's shattered synths and dead-eyed vocal display an ambition and drive to be impersonated by future-Britneys.
It's a shame, though, that Femme Fatale's weak links are so very poor. It would benefit from fewer tracks, and from delving a little deeper on those that remain. The listener would undoubtedly enjoy an opportunity to sit down and hear the singer's post-party thoughts - after the night before's mindless submission, the soiree that this album attempts to (re)create. As it is, this set is nowhere near as consistent as Blackout; but stripped down to probable singles it's home to at least five classic Britney hits.