Album Review: Britney Spears Returns to “Glory”

Spears performing in her Las Vegas residency, Britney: Piece of Me.

If Glory, Britney Spears’s ninth album, proves anything, it’s that the pop veteran is once again ready to “let inhibitions come undone,” which she coos in the album’s opening track, “Invitation.” At this point in her career, it seems that this proclamation has reached its peak for Spears, whose career and image have often been inextricably linked with ignoring self consciousness and just having fun. But there’s a certain refinery to Glory that, for once since her very public meltdown in 2007, makes Spears’s statement appear genuine.

When Spears’s fifth studio album, Blackout, was released in 2007 bathe in Spears’s professional and personal struggles, it was surprisingly acclaimed by critics and fans alike who deemed it as her masterpiece. Rob Sheffield from Rolling Stone wrote in 2010 that the album “may be the most influential pop album of the past five years,” while Entertainment Weekly’s Margeaux Watson called it “a perfectly serviceable dance album.” To this day, the album can still serve as the perfect club set-list without the audience questioning what year it is, or it can function as a sinister post-breakup album, only to have its listeners slither into a West Hollywood club with “Freakshow” or “Toy Soldier” playing in their heads.

Since its release, Blackout has been the rightful yardstick to which Spears’s succeeding albums are measured. While 2008’s Circus and 2011’s Femme Fatale tried to, at least, provide a sequel to the album’s aesthetic greatness and coherency that made every song a possible hit and helped push Spears’s sound forward, 2013’s Britney Jean — with its infusion of generic EDM trends punctuated in songs like “Work Bitch” and “Body Ache” — simply missed the point (you have will.i.am to thank for that).

Artistically and structurally, Glory is not the Blackout 2.0 that Spears’s die-hard fans, collectively known as the Britney Army, have been praying for since 2007. The album’s DNA, rather, makes for a mature sibling of Spears’s In the Zone — arguably her greatest work pre-Blackout era — evidenced in the way “Love Me Down” echoes the same beat and panache of In the Zone’s “Showdown.” However, what Glory shares with both In the Zone and Blackout are the authenticity and the presence that made Spears, in spite of her vocal shortcomings, a constant tabloid fixture; a cultural sensation and a bona fide pop icon.

In Glory, Spears’s voice is front and center with minimal auto-tune, and she sounds more in control. As she sings into airy whispers in songs like “Just Luv Me” and the French-sung “Coupure Électrique,” in a manner almost similar to Mariah Carey circa Butterfly 1997, the tracks undeniably reach some of the album’s highest marks. And even when Spears subdues her voice prevalent in songs such as “Invitation” and the album’s lead single, “Make Me,” she comes off assured in her desires and vocal ability without sounding bored or unsure.

Although the album is filled with mid-tempos that are atypical in Spears’s post-Blackout albums, the standout track “Hard To Forget Ya” and the Tinder-inspired “Do You Wanna Come Over?” have all the trademark of a flirty Spears anthem that should satisfy those craving Spears’s signature come-hithers: sexual tensions backed by an upbeat rhythm and an infectious chorus.

Where the album suffers, however, is in the doo-wops of the faux Tina Turner songs “Private Show” and “What You Need,” which only remind listeners Spears’s flaws as a singer. She’s not the greatest technical singer; her vocals are strong when she is trying to seduce a man she sees across the bar or when she shows a glimmer of fragility, and they’re at their weakest when she tries to be abrasive and outmatch Christina Aguilera in a yelling contest.

The album, therefore, could do without “Private Show” and “What You Need,” two songs that should lawfully be traded for the stronger deluxe edition cuts “Better” and “If I’m Dancing.” Whereas “Better” intertwines Spears’s distinctive, breathy vocals with a light-hearted beat that recalls the road trip mood of 2001’s Britney album, “If I’m Dancing” could’ve easily been a discarded track from Blackout with its urban sound and the way Spears enunciates “dancing” with an English accent, as if the year is 2007 and she’s back in a gas station store asking the cashier, “Where is the loo?”

There’s an intimacy in Glory that Spears’s last three albums lacked, and it is with this same intimacy that Spears chooses to close the album’s standard edition. “Well that was fun,” Spears says at the end of “What You Need.” It’s a simple remark, but it’s enough to summarize an album where she can finally remove any remnants of her past that’s made detractors doubt her presence, and her influence among most pop artists today who have studied her down to her last costume.

Glory is the album where Spears no longer needs to rely on hard, anthemic tracks to answer critics who question if she’s still there, or if she’s even there. She’s here, and by the time Spears’s voice fades, its distinctiveness can never be unheard or questioned, making it clear why Glory is another stellar addition to the catalog of one of pop’s greatest gifts.