After several years of tabloid turmoil, baby-makin’ and bizarre behavior, Britney Spears is back on track doing what she does best: crafting wholly disposable, ultra-manufactured and downright irresistible pop music.
Circus is a sonic and thematic sequel to last year’s discotheque tour de force Blackout, so much so that Blackout’s “Radar” even appears as a bonus track. Spears’ über-processed vocals cavort with ’80-influenced beats and textures—which take cues from Italo-disco, soul-funk, sleek synth-pop and glossy new wave.
Surprisingly, all of these stuttering rhythms occur without a single Timbaland production. But Circus doesn’t lack star power; hitmakers Dr. Luke, Bloodshy & Avant, Max Martin and Danja all earn writing or production credits. The breathy, subdued standout “Unusual You” conjures Kylie Minogue’s throbbing Euro-disco (mostly because of some watery piano), while “Out From Under” is a dreamy smooth jam produced by Guy Sigsworth (Frou Frou, Madonna, Björk). The sizzling tango “Mmm Papi” is prime strip-club electro, while No. 1 hit “Womanizer” remains an empowered, acrobatic sugar rush.
Conventional wisdom holds that musicians should write what they know. And Spears is an expert at surrounding herself with writers who pen songs about what she knows. “Kill the Lights” takes on the paparazzi (“Is that money in your pocket, or are you happy to see me?”), while “Blur” addresses the foggy confusion the morning after a party binge. Less successful is the Spears/Sigsworth co-authored “My Baby,” an anemic ballad, and “If U Seek Amy,” a rote techno romp that’s a thinly veiled come-on (say the title out loud).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the icon closest to Spears at this stage in her career is Madonna. Both women are experts at reinvention and staying relevant—and each time it feels like their careers are finally dead, they swing back with a vengeance. That’s certainly Spears in recent years, and specifically on the fun, frivolous Circus.