BRITNEY SPEARS: CIRCUS (2008)
1) Womanizer; 2) Circus; 3) Out From Under; 4) Kill The Lights; 5) Shattered Glass; 6) If U Seek Amy; 7) Unusual You; 8) Blur; 9) Mmm Papi; 10) Mannequin; 11) Lace And Leather; 12) My Baby.
This one was recorded and released at a surprisingly fast rate — coming out a little more than a year after Blackout. The hurry is understandable, since that record was produced very much in a daze, and after a series of subsequent collapses and rehabilitations, it was only logical to try and get back in the ring with a fresh start. Again, even the album cover reflects that somehow — the wonders of therapeutic treatment, heavy makeup, and Photoshop combined, we have here a far «fresher» image than on the lost-and-confused Blackout photo. But we do have the album title — and, in fact, the album concept — that still reflects turmoil and media problems, although, truth be told, the Britney team tries to view it with irony.
Instead of In The Zone's «sex junkie» and Blackout's «sex on ice» image, Circus toys around with a «sex marionette» approach — Britney as a haughty glamor doll with occasional soul. The arrangements are generally lighter than on Blackout, with less distortion, dark bass, and even fewer «auto-tuned» songs, but what is more important is that Circus, like any circus, strives for more diversity. There are even a couple of syrupy ballads that try to recapture the spirit of «Britney of old» — ʽOut From Underʼ and the cooey ʽMy Babyʼ could have easily fit on her first two albums; the latter, incidentally, is the only song on here credited to Britney without a host of co-writers, which just goes to show that the girl's own «artistry level» has never really advanced beyond the Mickey Mouse demarcation line.
Beyond that, there is not only the standard expected electropop (title track, ʽShattered Glassʼ, etc.), but also bits of less techno-crazy, mood-oriented R&B (ʽBlurʼ), bass-heavy funk (ʽLace And Leatherʼ), and straightforward «melodic techno» (ʽUnusual Youʼ). None of it is done all too well — just smooth and professional, as always — but at least the overall effect is that, for the first time in seven years, there seems to be an actual human being somewhere here, behind all the shimmery glitz and all the (still heavily present) robo-antics.
Even something really silly, such as ʽMmm Papiʼ, the album's «sex-dolliest» track of all, actually sounds like self-irony in the overall context: with songs like ʽBlurʼ and ʽMannequinʼ covering it from both flanks, lyrics like "with this fast car I can get really far", and teasing-est intonations on the whole record, it is hard to take it straight — and it is the only song here that could be taken straight. Everything else is with a conscious twist; a crude twist, for sure, but there is no doubt that Britney's songwriting team is genuinely trying to lay on a layer of «complexity» on the poor unsuspecting Britney. At the very least, she now has to play the glamor doll and the suffering, exploited soul behind the glamor at the same time.
In terms of melody or witty arrangements, however, Circus is not much of an improvement over Blackout. In fact, the arrangements are quite rote throughout — I can only try to imagine how the martial punch of ʽIf U Seek Amyʼ could have sounded in a classic Brit-pop arrangement instead of depending entirely on minimalistic electronic pulp, as if they were on such a tight budget. The chorus part of ʽBlurʼ is successfully creepy ("can't remember what I did last night, maybe I should have given in but I just couldn't fight" sung with a rare authenticity for Britney, stimulating uncomfortable suspicions). The chorus of ʽKill The Lightsʼ is genuinely psychotic (and at least we can hope that somebody took Britney out to see Sunset Boulevard — education rules!). The rest is traditionally rather non-descript.
Over all of this looms the shadow of ʽWomanizerʼ, the annoying eardragon that should work much better as a mouth muscle exercise for post-coma patients, but somehow turned into a «classic Britney Spears single» instead. It does not fit in well with the rest of Circus and it does not «ring true» at all — this whole idea of a suddenly «feminist» Britney kicking her Romeo in the guts is like a last-minute attempt to ride the coattails of Pink and Avril Lavigne. On the other hand, it does work as a comical gimmick that is all but impossible to scrape out of your eardrums — after all, the word «womanizer» does have a cool ring to it, and what if it rings 300 times in a row? — and then there was that video with the naked Britney in the sauna... hmm, decent pop song, on second thought.
For those actually interested in hearing the album from top to bottom — it does not deserve the honor (nobody in the whole wide world deserves to experience the barbie chimes of ʽMy Babyʼ, at the very least), but it would make sense to hear the bonus tracks on expanded editions: three of them, stacked together, give a good idea of the album's diversity — there is the funny, half-Madonna, half-Apples-In-Stereo psycho-techno of ʽRock Me Inʼ, the thoroughly awful, cheap, primitive dance-techno of ʽPhonographyʼ (yes, the lyrics make it obvious that the title was chosen due to phonetic similarity with a different word), and the «Phil Spector Meets The 21st Century (In Jail, While Inferior Crooks Are Running The Show)» electrono-Motown-ish lushness of ʽAmnesiaʼ. From thoroughly awful to curious, we have it all, making a real circus out of Circus. If only the musical realization of most of these ideas wasn't so bland, I could see this turning into a respectable... nah, into a fun album. But it was, so I couldn't.
Check "Circus" (MP3) on Amazon