After all the very public fiascos, it would be something of a triumph to put on headphones, listen to this album and discover that Britney Spears had given two fingers to everyone, as opposed to her usual habit of giving them to herself.

Whatever about the 25-year-old's longevity as tabloid fodder, when compared to her peers, Spears' career always seemed liked a case of borrowed time - without the edge of Pink, the imagination of Stefani or the vocal range of Aguilera, she always had the least to offer in the long run. And 'Blackout' makes that point very forcefully.

Painfully short of standout arrangements and guest stars, the lasting impression 'Blackout' leaves is that Spears' heart isn't in it anymore. Trying to revitalise herself with an r 'n' b and electro mash-up, she sounds like any number of others on a quest to replicate the attitude and allure of Nelly Furtado's 'Maneater' reinvention.

As befits a record that tries to attain success-by-blueprint, 'Blackout' is a soulless experience - get a pal to sing through a front door intercom and you'd be moved as much. As her trudge around the MTV Awards stage recently showed, there's something desperate - and hugely antiseptic - about Spears' peddling of raunchiness and here it feels as if the music is secondary to her attempts to prove that she's still 'hot'. It's like seeing a TV ad for a stripper's pole and being told by the announcer that they'll throw in a free CD of background music. You can't get one without the other and you don't need either.

Whatever 'Blackout's fate at the cash register, Spears' life in the public eye ceased to be about what she did in the studio a long time ago - if it ever really was to begin with. Even if this album had been a classic, she would still have to face up to the same unpalatable truth: people are more interested in looking at the pictures than listening.

Harry Guerin