Editors' pick

Britney Spears


Editorial Review

'Circus' Is Pretty Much Cotton Candy

By Chris Richards
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Britney Spears seems to have handled 2008 relatively well. Number of scalps shorn: zero. Number of babies bobbled: zero. Number of albums made: one. It's called "Circus," her sixth, and it offers a slew of bad-girl club tunes garnished with flecks of remorse.

Is it too little, too late? Last year, in the throes of the singer's galactically publicized meltdown, fans were hoping for a glimpse of self-reflection from their embattled sweetheart. Instead, Spears delivered "Blackout," a wonderfully brainless pop slab that felt as defiant as it was exuberant. (It was also her poorest-selling CD, indicating that controversy plays better on TMZ than on iTunes.)

With its synth-drenched tales of naughty Saturday nights, "Circus" largely echoes "Blackout." In addition, though, Spears emerges from her media bender hoping to forget the past ("Out From Under"), pining for her kids ("My Baby") and trying to silence the pesky headache that comes throbbing the morning after ("Blur") -- all flimsy tunes that feel more trite than contrite.

The main attraction of Brit's "Circus"? The incredible shrinking vocal hook! Accusatory lead single "Womanizer" offers a compact, one-word refrain that bounces off the walls of the skull like a paddleball. "Womanizer, womanizer, womanizer," she prattles on, waving her finger over laserlike synthesizers with a hook so catchy and insistent, it's almost bullying.

"Unusual You," the album's other gem, couldn't be more different. It's a mesmeric love song produced by Bloodshy & Avant, the Swedish duo responsible for Spears's 2003 monster hit "Toxic." Here, the pair continue to nudge the singer into unexpected corners, reimagining her thinning voice as a spectral coo.

Spears would have been wise to have these dudes oversee the entire project, but instead opts for a mishmash of B-, C- and D-list producers who end up putting "Circus" 10 steps behind the Katy Perrys and Lady Gagas of the world. In an attempt to catch up, Spears rattles off the misbehavior anthems -- songs whose lyrics are good for a giggle at best.

"Mmm Papi" tries to replicate the strutting come-ons of "Toxic," but quickly goes rancid as Spears indulges in some of the most cloying singing of her career. For the song's finale, she slips into a mock accent of unknown origin to announce: "I'm mami, and that makes you papi, and that makes us lovey." This moment feels like pulling your own teeth and then scraping those teeth against a chalkboard.

Then again, if this fallen Mouseketeer can limit her train wrecks to the vocal booth, things are certainly looking up.