This is one of Britney’s best albums.
After the commercial and critical flop of 2013’s Britney Jean, Britney Spears and company had two simple objectives with Glory: to make a hit and to make a good album. It’s only doing marginally better than Britney Jean stateside, though in Britain and Ireland it’s charting higher than any of her albums since 2007’s Blackout. But—more importantly for its listeners—this is as strong a Britney album as she was likely possible to make under such precarious circumstances.
If there’s no “Toxic,” that’s less Britney’s fault than the industry’s. When Britney did “Toxic” she was at the kind of career peak where pop stars can take experimental risks and expect them to pay off. We can see that today in the most recent projects by Kanye West, Rihanna, Frank Ocean and Miley Cyrus. For someone like Britney it’s probably safer to release something polite and focus-grouped in 2016 and that’s why lead single “Make Me” is by far the least interesting thing here. It’s exactly the kind of fluff pop stars release in dire times; there’s even a G-Eazy verse if the chipmunk Diplo vocal noises didn’t already make it clear she was desperate.
Glory really shines on its album tracks. Opener “Invitation” should be quick to assuage fans’ post-“Make Me” fears. It’s a similar kind of ballad to “Make Me,” but it employs an ingenious trick on the chorus where Britney’s voice is digitally chopped up to seem faster than normal speech when it’s actually not. It’s hard to explain, but electroclash auteur MU uses a similar trick often.
Then there’s track three, “Private Show,” which is one of the year’s best pop songs. Built around a digitally-enhanced doo-wop shuffle Justin Timberlake would be delighted to ride, “Private Show” both describes and acts as the sonic equivalent of a striptease Britney puts on for her lover. “Work it,” she implores in an elastic Southern-rap voice; she gives the orders. The song ends with a dialogue with the unheard lover, who wants her to do the tease again. This would be a great setup for Britney to bring the chorus back in, but instead she decides she’ll “take a bow”—then croons bemusedly about “apple pie, satisfy.” It’s a happy ending for everyone.
Yes, she refers to it as apple pie, and throughout it’s easy to get struck by the album’s endearingly old-fashioned bawdiness. Rather than hitting us over the head with innuendo, Britney’s sneaky with her dirty talk in the way of a ‘50s movie or old Broadway song. Electro-swing jaunt “Clumsy” is the best example, using the title as a delightful metaphor for the banging and bumping coming out of her bedroom. “If you want you can get out [your] frustrations,” she tells her squeeze after he’s had a shitty day at work on “Do You Wanna Come Over?” She doesn’t even drop any F-words until eight tracks deep into the 12-track album. Zayn could take some lessons.
To its great credit, Glory isn’t really beholden to any contemporary chart trends aside from the obviously pandering G-Eazy feature on “Make Me.” Britney’s never been one to sink to the level of what’s popular; even her 2011 dubstep album Femme Fatale came during a time when the idea of a drop in a pop song was still novel. But it’s refreshing how few trap beats, pitch-shifted vocal hooks, or tropical house synths can be found here. Instead, Glory draws from the past and from the underground: doo-wop, orch-pop, electroswing, folk and the gothic sub-bass mutations of Grimes’ Art Angels. As you listen, it’s difficult to say what the next track will sound like. This is one of the most exciting front-to-back listening experiences among 2016 pop albums.
Glory’s strengths stem mostly from the quality of the individual songs and the relative lack of filler. There’s not much purpose to Glory aside from being a really good pop album, which is admirable in itself. But that fact does give the album a one-dimensional feeling that might not vibe with those who like their pop more personal. The lyrics are almost exclusively about sex and it’s hard to say what else is on Britney’s mind. Glory is all craft, but at the end of the day, that’s what pop is about and it would be churlish to ask for much more. This is one of Britney’s best albums.