Some songs are so glutted with outside context you can hardly hear them. Everything about “Everytime”, from its Justin-fallout meta-text to its Britney-as-martyr video, arrives coated in meaning, strands of significance encircling and cocooning the song. And such a fragile song, to bear this much! – except the fragility is also part of the meaning, a song Britney Spears wrote holed up with a friend, a small still space in her discography that’s also the weirdest possible follow-up to a nuclear-level hit.

And that’s even before you get to everything that happened after “Everytime” closed out the In The Zone promotional cycle – the chaos of the singer’s personal life, the firestorm of her comeback and collapse, the extraordinary music she made around that time, and then the long numb twilight of the conservatorship years. “Everytime”, like a lot of Britney material, feels like it’s a deliberate intervention in this vast wider narrative, a story that devoured its central character and resists every attempt to step outside or end it. In the original treatment for “Everytime”’s video, Britney’s death is a suicide – she was talked out of it by a charity. It invites us to hear the song’s delicacy as extremity.

To try and approach Britney’s track I reached for a comparison. The song “Everytime” reminds me of most is by another colossally famous, narrative-ridden pop act. ABBA’s “Like An Angel Passing Through My Room” makes similar production choices to “Everytime”, with heavily echoed piano and high, light vocals creating a theatrically haunted effect, all the melodrama and sentiment of a Victorian parlour ghost story – except, this being pop, you can see all the tricks it’s pulling and still find yourself shivering as the music piles on the affect.

The ABBA song found itself working as a kind of unanticipated closure – for decades it was the final track on their final album, sounding like the band had one foot already in the pop afterlife. “Everytime” has some of that about it too: I’m listening with the knowledge of Britney Spears’ transition into the limbo of the legal semi-person. But it wasn’t written with that knowledge, and on its own terms “Everytime” is aiming to sound intimate and hurt, not (or not just) spectral and ominous. It’s about a different version of purgatory – the inability to get over a break-up you’ve caused.

This isn’t new territory for pop, but the way “Everytime” approaches it is striking – simple, direct lyrics, with piano and voice both bunched up in the higher end of their range, a musical analogue for the idea of being trapped by your own bad choices, unable to move away from them. You don’t need to be heavily – or at all – invested in the Justin Timberlake / Britney Spears drama to feel the sadness and pain in “Everytime”.

At the same time, this isn’t a conventional pop ballad. The pared-back instrumentation and querulous singing give the impression of Britney stripped bare of her usual production trickery, but “Everytime”’s production choices are still extremely mannered. Her commitment to creating a soundworld that denaturalises her vocals and compicates her presence remains intact. The piercing, tinkly vulnerability of the piano is as harsh and surprising amongst its fellow hits as the string stabs on “Toxic” were; the song’s sudden discovery of lower registers in the breakdown, along with even more layers of echo and vocal distortion, is as close as a piano ballad comes to an EDM drop.

“Everytime” is an unlikely hit, in a year of unlikely hits. There’s nothing in Britney’s catalogue much like it, and its melodrama puts it closer to musical theatre than it is to the rest of 2004 pop. Perhaps that’s likely to be its final fate, a way for it to make sense at last – when the Britney story inevitably becomes a jukebox musical, here’s your Act I closer, sung high and lonely before the curtain comes down.

Score: 7

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