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Album review: Britney Spears' 'Circus'

November 30, 2008 | 11:52 am

Britney__circus_coverIt's time for the annual declaration: Britney Spears is not going away. Last year she might have seemed like a human Superfund site, oozing bad fumes and impossible to repair -- but in 13 short months, she's churned out a perfectly viable album that telegraphs self-awareness, sexual confidence and her most sought-after commodity, control.

"Circus" already has given her a big hit, the "Cabaret"-meets-"Flashdance"-flavored "Womanizer," and considering the expensive production credits neatly lined up on each track, more seem inevitable. Then there will be the tour, which should be great, if she can keep herself from crying uncontrollably because she misses her kids and the pressure's really getting her down. But hey, there's always Xanax.

As tabloid fodder, Spears remains a New Marilyn, embodying lust and disaster in every swing of her hips. Musically, she turned a corner with 2004's "Toxic," when she fully matured into her role as a vehicle for other people's experiments. Last year's "Blackout" worked well as daring dance-pop, but Spears was too absent for comfort. On many songs, her presence was almost indiscernible, carefully buried within layers of effects and heavy singing support from Keri Hilson and other studio A-listers.

Not so on "Circus," whose up-tempo songs foreground Spears' mildly sultry bark and whose ballads have her hiccuping emotion from deep in the back of her throat.

She's also game for any vocal tricks her producers suggest, squealing and giggling and even trying on a fairly horrific pan-Latin accent in "Mmm Papi." That song recalls nothing so much as Rosemary Clooney's "Come On-a My House," which came from the time when even great jazz singers sometimes made a buck by wearing fruit on their heads.


Clowning around

Obvious jokes fit in well on "Circus": With its dominatrix rhythms and loud, highly compressed mix, it's meant to slap listeners in the face. Spears' favorite producers, including Max Martin, Dr. Luke and Nathaniel "Danja" Hills, have settled on a style that updates vampy show-tune melodies with sharp, metallic effects. The cartoonish sound compensates for Spears' lack of range and lung power by allowing her to ham it up.

She does so with the skill of a lifelong child star. But the overall effect is hardening as one bump-and-grind fades into another.

The lyrics about Britney as mannequin, sex object, paparazzi victim and leather-clad mistress have grown tedious. When the wittiest one is based around an adolescent text-message-style joke, you know it's time to refocus.

That might be why "Unusual You," a ballad from Bloodshy & Avant, stands out. It goes for that shimmering waterfall mood first popularized by Janet Jackson rather than strict Madonna-style workouts.

For her son

The other notable slow song is "Baby," one of only two co-written by Spears. (The other is, forgive her, "Mmm Papi.") It's a clumsily phrased love letter to one -- which one, and why only one? -- of her sons, and though it's nowhere near as sophisticated as anything else on "Circus," it communicates some of the seam-bursting humanity that generates so much interest in Spears as a celebrity.

Hackneyed as it is, "Baby" is a reminder that Spears is still a young woman trying to manage an impossible situation.

But those aren't the thoughts "Circus" is meant to raise, and in general the album does a bang-up job of pushing them into the background.

And really, that tour is going to be great.

--Ann Powers

Britney Spears
* * (2 stars)

Photos: Britney Spears' "Circus," courtesy of Jive Records. Spears performing at the Bambi Awards in Germany, courtesy AFP/Getty Images.