Review Summary: If Brit is trying to relive her glory days, she would do well to seize the present rather than try to recreate her old success.
Blackout was an appropriate record for Britney Spears to release in 2007. Hounded by paparazzi, coming off a horrific performance at that year’s VMAs, shaving her head and acting decidedly crazy, it was easily Spears’ worst year to date. Blackout was heavily produced (some would even go so far as to call it fake), defiant, dirty, and eminently danceable. It was an album where Britney didn’t really seem in control; her voice was vocoder-ed to the extreme, the lyrics were some of the most ridiculously shallow and naughty she has put to record, and it seemed like Brit was drowning her sorrows in synths and club bangers with the occasional jab at the media. It was also an excellent, wonderfully entertaining album.
Circus, on the other hand, is Spears circa late 2008. Calmer and (slightly) more refined than her previous release, it does recognize the three-ring show Spears’ life has been in the past couple of years on the title track, where Spears knowingly sings “there’s only two types of people in the world / ones that entertain, and the ones that observe / well baby I’m a put-on-a-show kinda girl / don’t like the backseat, gotta be first.” But for most of the record, Brit is content to put the past behind her, and Circus is what you would expect from her: lyrics about seduction, love, and relationships with a heap of double-entendres. Unlike Blackout’s almost monochromatic mix of pounding dance jams and take-off-your-clothes club hits, however, Circus is a more traditional pop record, a record that aims to put its ringleader back on top of the Top 40 world with a veritable army of A-list songwriters and producers.
She does a fantastic job with first single and opener “Womanizer,” her second #1 single and a song that seems like a Blackout outtake, all whirling synths and Britney’s seductive coo relating a threadbare tale of unfaithful men. The song is exceedingly well produced, simple, and undeniably catchy. The aforementioned “Circus” keeps the energy high with a fat bass line and a thunderous beat, but then we encounter something Brit hasn’t done in a while: an authentic ballad. “Out From Under” is a syrupy break-up track that reminds one why Spears still sounds far better stripping in a club than serenading her beau. With corny lyrics (“I try to put it in the past / hold on to myself and don’t look back”) and a mediocre R&B beat, “Out From Under” illustrates Spears reverting to that standard pop formula of a balanced pop album, complete with mandatory “slow” tracks.
If Brit is trying to relive her glory days, as the idealized cover art seems to support, she would do well to seize the present rather than try to recreate her old success. The best songs here are those that do what Blackout did so well; turn Brit into a one-woman engine of lust, surround her with expensive, trashy electro-pop beats, and have lyrics that either float along with the song or have some bite to them. The unrelenting “Kill The Lights,” with a jack-hammering hi-hat and a menacing horn part, takes her critics to task on one hand (“your words don’t stick / I ain’t perfect, but you ain’t either”) and makes a sly insinuation in the other (“is that money in your pocket" / or you happy to see me"”). The trippy “Unusual You” is the best slow song here, caught in a haze of muddied piano and synth while Brit’s vocals echo up and down hypnotically. The lyrics are a half-hearted attempt at declaring one’s love, but when you have music this good, the last thing you’re doing is listening to what she’s trying to say.
Not all of the “dance” tracks work to pop perfection here, however, be it a combination of ill-chosen lyrics or lackluster beats. “Blur” is an odd choice, a stuttering, space-y cautionary tale where Spears moans “where the hell am I / who are you" What’d we do last night"” It’s a song made awkward more for its eerie, probably true depiction of Spear’s nightlife than anything else. “Mmm Papi” is a terrible teenybopper impression that rumbles along a pogo-ing guitar riff and a very ‘80s chorus that has one of Britney’s more embarrassing vocal performances. And while not a dance track, closer “My Baby” gets its very own mention for sheer cheese; a “heartfelt” ballad about her kids, it tries to out-Mariah Mariah Carey, minus the impressive lung power and anything more than a boring adult-contemporary backing track.
But moments of pop bliss occur more often than not on Circus, and as the public has been more than willing to do over the past year, it only makes sense to forgive Britney for trying to regress into teen-pop mode. But it’s when Brit is being badly behaved, like on the sexily deranged Max Martin cut “If You Seek Amy” or the teasing “Lace And Leather” (the title says it all), that she’s truly in her element. With the money she’s likely to be making on this record, let’s hope that her new Euro-trash pop exploits won’t be derailed by any public meltdowns any time soon.