Review Summary: What do you mean there's no tunes?
Nobody needs reminding of the train-wreck Britney's become, so let's just get on to the cold facts - this is the most important album Britney Spears is ever likely to release. It's as simple as that. Right now she's clinging onto a career by her fingernails, because she'll know as well as anyone that the public can only take so much of one person self-destructing before they turn. Britney, her PR team, and most crucially her songwriters and producers, have got one final shot before Britney becomes about as popular in America as Pete Doherty is in England.
After the VMAs, you might think that despite everybody else's best intentions, the woman herself was going to be the one that finally sunk this ship. And yet, the exact opposite is true. Britney herself is actually the best thing about the album, shockingly - her voice still may not be anything technically great, but her breathy, disaffected delivery is instantly recognisable and it adds a lot to a few of these songs - her oversexed delivery is a welcome foil to the painfully clinical production.
Ah, the production. It seems like an eternity since Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears were an item, and looking at their careers since they split up, it's a little shocking to remember that simply being Britney Spears' boyfriend actually made Justin the star he is. On an international stage, it was the only reason anybody knew his name at all. So it's a shocking indicator of several things - the fickle nature of pop fans, the speed at which music moves now, just how far Britney's star has fallen - that this album takes FutureSex/LoveSounds
as its sonic template, right down to the tiniest detail. As a reviewer, I don't really need to make any more comment on how this album sounds. If you've heard a Justin Timberlake single recently, you know what Blackout
sounds like. It's a little upsetting not just because of how it reflects on Britney herself, but because the producers have obviously spent far more time working on how this album sounds than they have on writing any half-decent songs.
Honestly, it beggars belief that a star with the financial clout and mainstream appeal of Britney can only find songs as mediocre as this. Even in the past, when she had something as terrible as "E-Mail My Heart", she made up for it with an undeniably effective single like "You Drive Me Crazy" or "Baby (One More Time)". Here, the only song on that level is "Gimme More", and even that's probably lost its chance to be a megahit after its infamously shambolic live debut. Every other song here feels like a series of missed opportunities - "Piece Of Me" is an excuse to bitch about the way Britney's been treated by the media, and it pales in comparison to any other song where she's done that. "Heaven on Earth" is gleefully indebted to the 80s - with the exception of the snare sound, which sounds suspiciously like the 'Reznor' sounds on Reason - but rather than sounding knowingly camp or sounding like a tribute, it aims for a point between the two and falls into a no man's land that renders it pointless. The intro to "Ooh Ooh Baby" - a flamenco acoustic guitar line backed by the rhythm section from Adam & The Ants - singposts a song that's much better than the one it's attached to, and the melody here just sounds way too similar to too many other songs with much better tunes than this. "Perfect Lover" is so timid it barely even registers as a song at all. Only "Freakshow", which takes its sonic cues from dubstep hero Vex'd, transcends tokenism.
Yet the biggest failure of these songs, and the most confusing thing about this album, are the melodies. Simply put, there aren't any. I suppose you could argue that this album is meant for clubs and the rhythm should supersede the melody, but I don't buy it - this is a pop album, and when it's over, I want to remember some of the songs. After three listens you should AT LEAST be able to recall every chorus on the album - this is Britney Spears, for Christ's sake; she should have bought up the rights to at least five unforgettable melodies. And yet, I feel like I may as well have not listened to anything. The problem isn't so much that there aren't any songs as good as "Toxic", it's that there aren't any songs as good as "From The Bottom Of My Broken Heart" or "Don't Let Me Be The Last To Know". Seriously. From "Gimme More" onwards, you're expecting - hoping - that a song will arrive that isn't just a meticulously crafted synth backing track, and nothing ever comes. It renders the album an oddly exhausting listen, despite its admirably short length - no pop listener should ever have to fight to have to find a hook, and yet that's exactly what at least 10 of the songs here force you to do.
It's genuinely saddening that at such a crucial point in her career, this is the best that Britney and her management can muster. Blackout
isn't merely lifeless, it actually sucks the life out of the listener.