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Reviewed by Jeff Giles
Of course, the fact that 2007’s Blackout was a bit of a dud might have something to do with the quick turnaround between releases, along with the extreme probability that Britney’s army of handlers weren’t shy about letting her know that the sooner she did something – anything – to erase the memory of last year’s infamous VMA performance and subsequent Spears/Federline custody battle, the better her chances of repairing her long-suffering image. And yeah, okay, so it’s hard to imagine Spears spending more than an afternoon on any one of this album’s vocal tracks – but that hasn’t stopped her peers from taking three to five years to finish records every bit as flimsy. She might not make great music, but at least she has the decency to treat her albums like the product they are.
And as product, Circus holds up reasonably well – a smidge better, even, than the not-bad Blackout. After a succession of releases that found her moving, Michael Jackson style, into ever more strident and paranoid dance music, Circus spins the dial back a bit toward Spears’ late ‘90s teen pop phase, offering up an airbrushed girly-girl version of the singer on the cover and tossing in a pair of vulnerable ballads between all the mechanized dance floor beats. Spears’ music has never been edgy, per se, but on Blackout (and, to an extent, 2003’s In the Zone) she sounded exhausted and adrift; on these tracks, she’s on her way back to the chemically engineered performer that moved all those millions of records a decade ago.
Whether this is a good or a bad thing depends mostly on how demanding you are of the music you hear. Spears is not a singer (or, God help us, a songwriter) capable of communicating much in the way of insight or honest emotion; her songs have always been about artifice piled upon artifice, and anyone who looks to her records for glimpses of Spears as a person is running a fool’s errand. But if they fail as complete songs, Spears’ best tracks still get by as listening experiences that are as perfectly memorable as they are utterly undemanding – for you as well as for Spears, who has the range of a pitcher with rheumatoid arthritis and doesn’t seem bothered by it at all.
While it would be silly to suggest that Circus is Britney Spears at her best, it’s at least the best we’ve heard from her in a while; although the track listing is heavy with the harsh, anodized beats and paranoid lyrics that took up much of Blackout, she does seem to be having fun in spots – particularly the perfectly ridiculous "MMM Papi" and groan-worthy "If You Seek Amy" (say it out loud to get the joke). It also offers up "Out from Under," which holds the dubious twin distinctions of being both the best ballad Spears has recorded since "I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman" and the sloppy seconds of a singer named Joanna Pacitti, who recorded it first – for the soundtrack to "Bratz: The Movie." My, how times have changed.
It has its share of scattered highlights – probably more than you were expecting, really – and it’ll work as both a patch on Spears’ brand and a launchpad into her 2009 tour, which is bound to give Miley Cyrus a run for her money at an amphitheater near you. So maybe Circus isn’t the album of the year, but it is unquestionably the sanest-sounding, most enjoyable collection of dance pop ever recorded by a young woman who once shaved her head and attacked her paparazzi with an umbrella (ella, ella). That’s got to be worth something, right?