On paper, yet another svelte, disco-tinged reworking of an Elton John classic is nothing to get too excited about. Last year the Dua Lipa-assisted Cold Heart fused Rocket Man, Sacrifice, Kiss the Bride and Where’s the Shoorah? Here, it’s Tiny Dancer mixed with The One and a dash of Don’t Go Breaking My Heart. Still, Hold Me Closer skips along nicely, a chunky bassline gliding through the song like a train of sequin-clad revellers at a 70s roller-disco. There are even some jazzy piano flourishes at the end for the Bösendorfer fetishists.
But this is no ordinary streaming-friendly curio from a legend looking to fluff their back catalogue. Marking the return of Britney Spears on her first recording since the termination of her almost 14-year conservatorship last year, it comes tinged with something close to bittersweet; an example of what could have been if Spears’ megawatt pop-superstar shine hadn’t been dimmed all those years ago.
For diehard Spears fans, or indeed anyone with a passing knowledge of one of the most distinctive pop vocalists of all time, hearing her sing again feels like a real moment (her last album was 2016’s Glory). As John’s heavily filtered vocals emerge from the fog, Spears unfurls a classic “ooh baby”, each crystal-clear syllable given the full quivering treatment. Throughout the song, her lively vocal trills and ad libs recall her full-bodied musical performances on Instagram, a place of refuge where she has been attempting to reclaim her public image and undo learned behaviours from years of control. On Hold Me Closer she seems keen to remind people she was a singer first: before pop fame, before controversy, before near-annihilation.
Sensibly, she’s pushed to the fore in the mix, her engaged delivery coating the ghostly shimmers of John’s original vocals. It doesn’t seem accidental that she sings the line “drunken nights in dark hotels” solo in the second verse, the sadness in her voice quickly shaken off by another “baby”, the two lines’ close proximity nodding to both shiny past glories and their blackout consequences. She even throws in a few playful “yeahs”, ad libs that feel like actual yelps of joy rather than the robotic manoeuvres of someone being shuttled from studio to waiting car.
Both The One, which makes up the verses, and Tiny Dancer evoke a sense of having found someone, or something, with the power to transform a life. A totem to hold on to and believe in. On Hold Me Closer, Spears seems to hint at finding that for herself again in music. Even if this is a one-off – and who can blame her if she doesn’t want to return to pop full-time – that feels like enough.