With its title, Circus nods knowingly at the madhouse that is Britney Spears' life, acknowledging that things got a little rough after the release of 2007's Blackout. It's no secret that Blackout's launch didn't go as planned: the furor surrounding her stumbling VMA lip-sync of "Gimme More" was eclipsed by her institutionalization -- a drama played out live on TV, as so much of her life is -- and the loss of custody of her two young boys to ex-husband Kevin Federline, all of which pushed Blackout far, far to the background. Britney herself didn't exactly seem engaged on Blackout -- it was a club album, a producer's showcase, so it didn't matter if Spears didn't give herself over completely as the behind-the-boards team carried her through. That distance combined with her troubles did give Britney the appearance of losing control completely, and the best way for a pop star to right herself is through image -- hence Circus, a friendly remake of the hedonistic Blackout that posits that all is better with Brit-Brit now, thank you. If Blackout was a producers' album, Circus is a handlers' album, intent on sweeping away any recent unpleasantness -- the only acknowledgement is that title -- and acting like nothing ever happened, imagining that this is still a world where Britney remains envied and desired, where she can be dolled up as a gauzy Farrah Fawcett pinup on her album cover, where she can sing a drippy ballad about "My Baby" and have nobody raise an eyebrow. She can get away with the former with a bit more ease than the latter if only because all the time, effort, and money is poured into the club tracks, such as the thumping, stuttering first single "Womanizer" and its better, the relentless "Kill the Lights," so sleek and sexy it winds up diminishing the rest of the record.
"Kill the Lights" may be exceptional, one of Britney's best-ever singles, but it also doesn't have much competition here: it's one of a handful of tracks that follow through on Blackout, while the rest of Circus plays it safe, never hitting the beats hard enough to alienate a pop audience but perhaps layering on a bit too much saccharine for dance fans. It's careful and considered, right down to the single-entendre "If U Seek Amy," a Katy Perry-styled exercise in crass commercial carnality that is at once the best and worst song here. Best because Max Martin once again works his undeniable pop magic, turning this into a trashy stomper that feels inevitable and eternal, working against any sense of taste or decorum, something that the lyrics work overtime to undercut as they insist that all the boys and all the girls still want to F, U...well, spell it and you'll get the picture, and if you don't, Britney's elocution will paint it for you. This sexy strut doesn't work not because Spears' desirability took a nosedive in the five years since In the Zone -- although it did -- but because Britney's sexiness never was this explicit; she teased and hinted, at least in her music, and it feels wrong to have her be so nakedly vulgar here. Still, it was a necessary move, a way to stir up headlines and perhaps snatch the tabloid tiara from Katy's head, but the rest of the record doesn't follow through as it resorts Spears' standard formula: a couple of great dance singles, a couple of pretty good chill-out cuts (best being Bloodshy & Avant's "Unusual You"), a couple of not-good-at-all ballads, and a whole bunch of stuff in the middle. If she feels marginally more connected here than she did on Blackout, it's a Pyrrhic victory, as Circus never feels as sleek or addictive as its predecessor.