Monday, November 5, 2012

5 Year "Blackout" - Britney's Best Album Remembered

Britney Spears may be appearing on US TV screens as a talent show judge right now but five years ago she was in an altogether different place. 2007 was the year that Britney’s meltdown became tabloid fodder, award show gold (in the wrong way) and made a star out of one overly emotional YouTuber (you’re welcome Chris Crocker).

More importantly it was also the year she released the impressive album Blackout. Britney's fifth effort was a triumph on several levels, for upping the stakes of her sound, for how it stood out from the pop pack and for the fact that it's much-hounded star even finished the album at all.

The Britney Spears saga become something of a nightmare throughout 2007. Spears had given birth to her first child the year before but divorced much-maligned lover Kevin Federline and soon used excessive partying to numb the pain. There was a forced rehab visit or two and that infamous head-shaving / attacking the paparazzi with an umbrella moment that has become a weirdly iconic image in the celebrity meltdown pantheon.

While all this oozed across gossip blogs, Britney was piecing together recordings with producers like Danja, Bloodshy and Avant and Sean Garrett many of whom were deliberately avoiding mentioning Britney's personal struggles (except on two standout tracks) to serve up a forward-thinking pop record.

Blackout arrived at the end of October 2007 with little proper promotion. Her appearance at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards was a disaster and the video for Gimme More a barely salvaged rough cut of Britney twirling around a stripper pole (more on that here). There was no press interviews apart from a famously weird Ryan Seacrest radio chat. The songs were effectively left to do the talking.

Gimme More isn't just a terrific lead single for the project, it's also still one of Britney's best singles ever. It's deceptively simple but so slinky, dark and suggestive it's impossible to resist. Danja's layered production takes a plinky video game beat, adds creepy strings and weird whirring noises while Britney coos over each and every syllable. It's one of those immediate, dance-ready Britney tunes given a dark and sexy twist.

I tackled Piece of Me for Idolator's look-back at Blackout and my comments on it apply here. It's a rare moment of self-awareness in the Britney back-catalogue as she gives a defiant middle finger to media attention over an agressive Bloodshy and Avant beat. It's single release in the UK/Ireland arrived not long after the infamous incident of Britney being removed from her home on a gurney in front of hordes of paparazzi. It was a creepy moment as the looming tabloid figure that Britney had become jarred with the popstar whose new direction was winning over fans both old and new.

Radar is another sprightly Bloodshy and Avant production that has the ear-wormiest of hooks while Break The Ice is a swirling, futuristic take on the sort of R'N'B pop that was huge in 2006/7. Heaven on Earth is oddly upbeat, a sweet but slightly moody synth pop ode to a seemingly perfect man. Get Naked amps up the sleaze factor straight after, the dirtier sister track to Gimme More with a thumping, hypnotic suggestiveness apparent.

Freakshow plays with dubstep sounds years before Spear's future hit Hold It Against Me , while Toy Soldier channels Gwen Stefani and M.I.A. in a skittering, kinetic hip-hop infused number laced with attitude. Hot As Ice is somewhat clunky but endearing in it's brash knockabout quality. Ooh Ooh Baby is a callback to early Britney but more grown up. Perfect Lover brings things back into a darker vein, Danja layering up layers and layers of buoyant rhythms over a breathless Britney vocal. 

Closing track Why Should I Be Sad is the only mid-tempo note on the whole set, a R'N'B ditty about a no-good man that she has to leave behind. It's standard stuff but delivered by Spears in an emotional way that suggests she's a little too invested in the content amid choice lines about expensive gifts she bought and gossip mags.

Blackout still remains the most consistent set Spears has ever released. While peers like Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake had found a sense of credibility from hip-hop approved hits (Timberlake's work with Timbaland) or mature artistic choices (Aguilera's much vaunted Back to Basics album) it took Blackout for Spears to finally shed her bubblegum beginnings for a believable sonic evolution.

The proceeding albums didn't always mine similar territory. 2008's Circus had high-points but resorted to the mixed-bag of styles that plagued her earlier releases. 2011's Femme Fatale was tightly made and packed with big songs but favoured a more bombastic approach, the sense of subtlety and pop-grit of Blackout left behind. 

Blackout is a fan fave and critical darling five years down the line, with hysterical fan reaction to Britney's tweet about Blackout 2.0 a good marker of the esteem in which the album is held. It may not have had the push that a pop album can expect in the current chart world but Blackout still sounds just as good unfolding from your speakers as it did five years ago. 

Blackout is out now and you should really just get a copy because it really is quite brilliant. 

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