As a soundtrack to her recent period of public carousing, In the Zone may be Britney Spears' most revealing album. With techno and hip-hop beats whirring around her, she depicts lusty scenes in which: her ''hips are moving...sweat dripping all over my face''; one potential partner is ''looking good...half-dressed''; and she's ''passed out on the couch'' after an all-nighter. Apparently, the songs were written either on the way into a club or in the limo headed home.
Much great pop has sprung from such inspiration -- just ask Madonna. (Alas, her duet with Spears, the album's coy, overly busy single ''Me Against the Music,'' isn't one of them.) But like an inebriated dancer, ''In the Zone'' keeps tripping itself up. Despite inventive touches like zigzagging strings and humping-android hooks, too many tracks -- the earthquake-emulating ''(I Got That) Boom Boom,'' R. Kelly's robotic ''Outrageous'' -- are little more than wobbly, rhythm-based contraptions intended to advance Spears' sex-princess-on-the-loose image. Her producers, including Moby, don't do her reputation as a puny singer any favors, either. When they're not distorting her slender pipes, they're burying them in sonic gimmicks, reducing Spears to a moaning, groaning, giggling sound effect on her own disc.
''Zone'''s best moments are its most straightforward: the spatial, breathy ''Touch of My Hand,'' the zesty, Pepsi-ad-friendly ''Brave New Girl.'' Toward the end, Spears grows wistful, abandoning her pinched, porn-videogame delivery for a croon. With its dainty piano, ''Everytime'' plays like a forlorn postmortem on her Justin Timberlake era. Even here, Spears suffers by comparison with Timberlake, who always sounds as if he's communicating directly to the listener. On a CD intended to celebrate her lurch into adulthood, Spears remains distant and submerged. For all her freedom, she's still finding her way.