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Thanks to some weird backroom machinations, Britney Spears does not have the number one album in the country. And that’s fine; she shouldn’t. Long Road Out of Eden, the new album from the reunited Eagles, sold more than twice as many albums as Blackout, the new Britney thing. Not too surprising: Britney has obviously been on a massively public self-destruction rampage over the last couple of years, with pundit after pundit declaiming about how she’ll never be able to recover a shred of the stardom she once enjoyed, while the Eagles still have the best-selling album in history; their reunion is a big deal, despite the incontestable fact that they suck. (I have this theory that “Hotel California” is the worst song in the history of the universe. I hatched this theory during freshman year of college, when my roommate was trying to teach himself to play guitar by listening to the “Hotel California” mp3 over and over again and playing guitar along with it. He tried the same thing with “Tears in Heaven,” the second-shittiest song in the history of the universe.) Despite the massive disparity in their final sales-tallies, Britney briefly held the top spot because of some arcane Billboard rule that prevented the magazine from charting any album that was sold exclusively at one retail outlet. (You can only buy Long Road Out of Eden at Wal-Mart, and that album’s astronomical numbers, 711,000 sold, is another chilling testimony to that chain’s power.) Billboard changed its rules at the last second to account for the Eagles’ victory, and Britney’s failure to top the album charts on anything other than a technicality will probably be seen as the latest in an endless procession of public embarrassments. But Blackout isn’t the bomb that slavering tabloid-news shows the world over will almost certainly depict it as. The album sold nearly 300,000 copies in its first week, an impressive number coming from such a pilloried figure. And even if some of those sales did come from the car-crash appeal of its creator, at least a few of them must’ve come because it’s a pretty good album, one that might even yield more than one big single.
At this point, it’d be overkill to even begin to recount Britney’s string of misdeeds, but one of the really refreshing things about Blackout is the way it plays around with her trainwreck turboskank image without ever falling back on it. At the beginning of “Piece of Me,” she purrs, “I’m Miss American Dream since I was 17,” which, you have to give her, is an awfully weird thing to be. Very few people have become as famous as young as Britney Spears without completely falling apart somewhere down the line. But the funny thing about “Piece of Me” is how simultaneously defiant and happy she sounds about the whole turbulent circus she inhabits. It’s there, too, on the way she squeaks “center of attention,” on the sleek, layered single “Gimme More,” as if that position was something to aspire to, not something to dread. On the other hand, her Kevin Federline kiss-off “Why Should I Feel Sad?” is forlorn and tentative where it could be vengeful. But Blackout isn’t an album about the inner life of Britney Spears, though I can’t think of a single artist more deserving of the cliched “Leave Me Alone” sentiment since Michael Jackson sang it. I always thought it was weird that the first singles from Britney-wannabe pop chicks like Lindsey Lohan and Brooke Hogan were all about how the paparazzi should stop following them when, at the time the songs came out, neither one really merited a whole lot of paparazzi attention and even though most of their intended audience would probably regard the whole paparazzi thing as a good problem, not one deserving of sympathy. It would make a whole lot of sense for Britney to go down that road here, but Blackout is mostly an album about dancing and fucking, and at its best (the first half, basically) it actually does a pretty good job conveying the joy that ideally comes with both activities. “Heaven on Earth,” my favorite song on the album, is a full-blown no-joke love-song, one that opens up into the sort of dizzy sunstruck chorus that I’ve never heard Britney convincingly pull off before.
Writing about Blackout, Sasha Frere-Jones wrote that the album works because Britney had the money and the taste to bring in a dream-team of collaborators, but that doesn’t quite seem to be the case either. Most of Britney’s collaborators here (Danja, Bloodshy & Avant) aren’t quite A-list; if her label wanted to ensure massive success, it might’ve sprung for Timbaland and Akon instead. T-Pain and Pharrell both pop up, but most of them are there in service of god-awful tracks near the back of the album. Assigning credit on an album like this one can be a dicey business, but the tracks here are mostly streamlined Euroclub dance-tracks that fit Britney’s icy monotone a whole lot better, for my money, than the precise Max Martin teenpop that made her famous in the first place. Tracks like these need serious hooks to work, but as often as not the hooks are there. Things only really get out of hand on the second half, when the hooks disappear and Britney tries out when Britney tries out a couple of ill-advised vocal tricks, like operatic wailing or stilted rapping. The godawful rapping, as much as the glossy dance-pop, reminds me of the self-titled album that the internet-beloved Swedish pop singer Robyn released a while back. Maybe not coincidentally, Robyn shows up as a backing vocalist here, and it’d be fun to credit her with some of the album’s triumphant moments as well as the rapping. But then, we don’t really know much of anything about the creation of Blackout; it’s practically the only thing mysterious left in Britney Spears’s life. Blackout probably shouldn’t exist, and it certainly shouldn’t be any good. The Eagles might have blown her out of the water commercially, but Britney Spears should still hold her head high.
Voice review: Theon Weber on Britney Spears’s Blackout