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Britney's latest: sex bomb

Britney Spears's fourth album, in stores today, celebrates the singer's evolution from lying virgin to certified nymphomaniac. Gone is the moral purgatory, the carefully scripted identity crisis, the titillating passage from childhood to womanhood that made her last album a model business plan. "In the Zone" is far simpler in content and execution. It's a sex show, set to lascivious grooves and heavy breathing. In fact Spears's new musical path -- all roads lead to orgasm -- requires a minimum of actual singing.

And tell the truth: Who wouldn't rather hear her moan?

The devil might argue that "In the Zone" is Spears's most revealing album so far: a techno-drenched, trance-laced tribute to growing up. But her delivery -- a stock catalog of clenched groans and pinched chirps -- is, as ever, so profoundly vacant it's impossible to believe that freedom makes her feel anything but numb. For all the steamy beats and juicy come-ons, that's how it makes us feel, too.

The opening track and first single, one of nine tunes co-written by Spears, neatly distills her current vantage point. Spears is up against the wall, careerwise, and the song's title -- "Me Against the Music" -- reveals an ugly outlook for a 21-year-old musician. The video for "Me Against the Music" features Spears's mentor Madonna in a sort of homoerotic dance-club drama, and it is meant to suggest a torchlike passing of the bustier. Indeed, the album's one genuinely provocative moment comes midway through the song, when Madonna sings, "Hey Britney, you say you want to lose control/Sexy lady, I'd rather see you bare your soul."

But it's a dare that Spears will never take. The song's appeal is rooted in the itchy rhythms and erogenous sonics of the production team RedZone, not the singer's anonymous purr. With a couple dozen or so co-writers and producers on board -- among them R. Kelly, Moby, and the Matrix -- these dance tracks could have been cooed by any pitch-adjusted pinup. "I don't wanna be a tease/Will you undo my zipper please?" she whispers on "Showdown," a Janet Jackson-esque track from producers Bloodshy and Avant. Banjos, giggling, and a gruff, vacuous groove make "(I Got That) Boom Boom," featuring the Atlanta rap duo Ying Yang Twins, a special treat "for all the Southern boys out there." Spears's slim, unpretty pipes are brought into unfortunate relief on the Matrix's pop behemoth "Shadow," the stern self-love anthem "Touch of My Hand," and "Toxic," a well-titled cascade of frantic, mechanized glissandos and dreadful canned strings that buries the album's coolest (only?) chorus under a joyless mass.

By comparison, Moby's "Early Mornin' " is a relief -- a hazy ode to passing out after a night spent "shakin' my ass in the streets." Spears sounds bored, blue, ready to crash. And who can blame her? It's been a busy night.

Joan Anderman can be reached at

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