Return to pop is the show in 'Circus'
Let's give credit where credit is due: Britney Spears is a whiz with an album title. She honed her innocent-seductress persona on "Britney," plumbed salaciousness with athletic precision on "In the Zone," and was barely there on last year's "Blackout." It's been a tough spell for Spears since then, what with hospitalization, losing custody of her kids, and the paparazzi chronicling every Frappuccino.
With "Circus" - which comes out on Tuesday, the singer's 27th birthday - Spears tips her hat to the spectacle that passes for her life. It seems to have finally occurred to her (or her handlers, or whoever is exerting control over the wild rumpus) that there are some rough edges that could use a bit of smoothing over, and the need for equanimity is the guiding aesthetic on "Circus." This is Britney's friendliest album since 2001's self-titled project: a smorgasbord of club tracks, ballads, and chill-out cuts that screams - in its own judicious, temperate fashion - crisis control.
A seasoned cast of collaborators including Danja, Bloodshy & Avant, Guy Sigsworth, and Max Martin ensures that Spears's sixth album hits all the proper sonic touchstones. The fistful of dance tunes are fashionably stern, saddled with ominous strut and anonymous throb. But Britney is a palpable presence here, a flesh-and-blood singer. She may not be a great one, but that was never the point, and on the heels of the digitized moans she delivered on "Blackout," the sound of Spears spewing slinky invective at the paps ("Is that money in your pocket or are you happy to see me?" goes one rhetorical zinger on "Kill the Lights") feels like a giant step out of the shadows.
So does Spears's return to pop, as image rehab if not artistic achievement. In other words, it's more of a relief than a pleasure to hear Britney warble a ballad. Saccharine "Out From Under" won't win many hearts and minds, but the break in Britney's voice might. She should have left it at that, because the only appropriate response to "My Baby" is a painful cringe. It's a dreadfully treacly number, but more offensive still is the miscalculated notion that anyone will swallow this maternal love song without choking on the well-documented details of Spears's dubious parenting skills.
There are two bona fide triumphs on "Circus," a pair of moody, electro-laced gems that appear back-to-back on the album and are remarkable enough to suggest a viable vision for Spears's musical future. Trading in neither factory-assembled carnality nor emotional posturing, "Unusual You" and "Blur" aren't likely to scale the charts, or even to be released as singles. But they may be the best songs Britney has made, and they're certainly the most interesting tracks to appear on a Britney Spears album.
"Where am I/ Who are you/ What we do/ Last night" she wonders on "Blur," notes weaving and beats crackling like shaky ground beneath her. "I need to get up outta here/ I gotta get my head right," Spears concludes, and she sounds - for the first time in a long time - like she means it.
Joan Anderman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.