Femme Fatale Britney Spears (Jive Records/Sony Music)
So, it is possible to put Humpty back together again. Three years after she tumbled off the wall into a psychiatric ward, Britney Spears says she likes nothing better than to play with her little boys and clean house. Making records with Max Martin must rank pretty high on her list, too. The Swedish hit-maker, who launched Britney's career in 1997 with … Baby One More Time, is all over her latest album, as producer, co-writer of half the songs and executive producer, a job Britney took for her scary Blackout album of 2007.
Femme Fatale has to be some kind of career high for Martin. He has given his client some very catchy product, while slyly documenting the state of their current working relationship.
"You know me inside out," Britney sings in Inside Out, a few seconds after referencing her greatest hit under Martin's tutelage. The grinding clockwork beat suggests she's singing to a lover; but when we get to the bridge, her heavily conditioned vocals get filtered in a way that makes her sound like a desexualized android cooing to her creator.
The freedom and frequency with which her vocal sound has been messed with on this record really raise the question: What is Britney? Quite often, she seems like a mere bank of vocal information. In I Wanna Go, Martin chops rhythmic gaps into her performance of the chorus; in Trip to Your Heart (one of two tiresome offerings from the Swedish production duo Bloodshy and Avant), she's barely separable from her androidal shadow. In Big Fat Bass, her monotone mantra "the bass is gettin' bigger" has a weirdly flat edge, as if will.i.am (who wrote and produced this verseless tune) thought it would be fun to make her sound like Rihanna.
After a whole album of this kind of thing, it's almost a shock to hear a relatively organic Britney in the closing track, Criminal. For a related thrill, check out the leaked demo version of the single Hold It Against Me, with co-writer Bonnie McKee's relatively natural voice (also heard in close backup harmonies throughout Femme Fatale) standing in where the star's souped-up performance would later go.
Martin's efforts dominate and enliven the beginning and end of the record; the middle sags by comparison. I'd be surprised if he has ever made a song with more verve than the opening Till the World Ends, which defines highly fabricated dance pop while reaching way past what the genre usually provides. When was the last time you heard a high-gloss dance tune in which the chorus runs 11 beats against eight? There's a great moment when the power fails, the tune sputters out, and then rears up again from the electric swamp. Martin just loves a dirty bridge.
Allusions to other's people stuff are rampant, if you care to track that kind of thing. Gasoline, a Martin-penned tunein which Spears compares herself to an internal-combustion engine (!), traces the same ABBA bass line Madonna used in Hung Up. The bass line of (Drop Dead) Beautiful is a cousin of the ground for the Eurythmics' Sweet Dreams, and I'll be damned if the English writer-producer Fraser T. Smith isn't copping something from Syd Barrett's Bike in the irregular stumbling bit that leads into the chorus of Trouble for Me.
The album overall has a grainy, glistening electronic sound. Throw in a barrage of displaced beats, some pin-sharp hooks and periodic hits of blatant innuendo (standard on any Britney album), and you have one of the major guilty pleasures in pop this year.