Monday, September 28, 2009

Album Review: Circus

Note: This was originally posted in December of 2008 on a different site (AKA immediately after the album's release and way before I was proven wrong about If U Seek Amy).

The media has been calling Circus, the latest album from Ms. Britney Spears, a comeback. I think this is a misnomer. To me, a comeback would imply two things: First, that Britney completely disappeared from the popular scene and second, that Britney has returned to the popularity that she once experienced. On both counts, I think that Circus fails to signal a complete comeback for Britney. The biggest issue here is that Britney never quite left the public's eye. Preceding her 2007 album, Blackout, Britney was constantly in the tabloids for showing her genitals or doing her Sinead O'Connor impression. Although she "disappeared" from the public after Blackout's release, Britney's singles still had a fair amount airplay. I can even remember hearing Break the Ice over the summer--weeks before her "redeeming" appearance at this year's VMA's (I'm going to try to cut back on the air quotes. I think you probably understand my sarcasm at this point). In essence, Britney has never left, so it seems like her comeback is happening a little too soon to be taken completely seriously.

Furthermore, Circus is similar enough to Blackout that it doesn't really seem like we're getting a reformed Britney with this album. Extravagant production, robotic vocals, and sexual suggestion permeated her last album. If this is her chance to break free from her past and show the world that she's in control again, it sure isn't happening musically. Hell, the closest thing we've ever had to a confessional from Britney occurred on Blackout (Piece of Me). I think my biggest frustration is that I was really rooting for Britney to pull her act together and show the world that she was ready to be a superstar again. As her most recent live performances have shown, she is taking baby steps towards success, but she isn't quite ready to be in the public eye. If this album were given another six-eight months to perfect, I think Britney easily could have had the comeback she deserves. Unfortunately, this is too little too soon.

Now, I understand that I've been judging Circus (up until this point) based on it's release date and relationship to a previous album. Admittedly, that isn't a very objective way to review an album. From this point on, I'll focus my thoughts and opinions on the individual songs and the way they work together on the album. Honestly, I like the album and think it's nothing that Britney should be ashamed of. However, I don't think it has the impact that Britney's career needs at this point.

Circus, by Britney Spears, is a pretty good album anchored by about five or six great songs. By now, most people have heard the album's best track: Womanizer, the catchy single that proves that lyrical diversity isn't a prerequisite to infectious pop (Although, Gimme More proved that already). It's hard to find fault with a song that has set download records and is Britney's first #1 single in about a decade.

After Womanizer, it's obvious that Britney has front-loaded her album with all of the strongest tracks. The title number is a potential dance hit, and slated to be her next single. She's tapped the director of the video for I'm A Slave 4 U, so I have high hopes that this video will be a success. As far as the actual song goes, it does effectively sum up that which is Britney: "All eyes on me in the center of the ring/just like a circus." Considering what a spectacle her career has been, it's clear why this track and album equate her life to a circus. It's just a letdown that this song values style over substance and doesn't dig a little bit deeper with the message. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. This is Britney Spears, after all. At the very least, this should be a hit.

There are two other tracks that jump out as dance hits: Kill the Lights and If U Seek Amy. Although Amy is clearly the better track, it's probably too lewd for radio airplay (and if you don't know why, I'm not telling). I think that bodes well for Kill the Lights' future as a single, however the song strikes me as a more upbeat and less meaningful version of Piece of Me. We get it, the paparazzi sucks. However, we're dealing with Britney Spears here. Does it really matter what a song is about if we can dance to it? Isn't that all she really wants?

Apparently not. Two ballads appear on Circus, which is the biggest different from Blackout. Out From Under is a surprisingly effective song, and perhaps one of the strongest ballads of Britney's career. With the proper music video, this could be a huge hit. If the video shows how the lyrics of this song could represent Britney's personal life and her struggles, then I really think people would respond well to it. "I don't wanna feel the pain/What good would it do me now?/I'll get it all figured out/when I'm out from under." However, Brit is only batting 50% with her ballads on this album. My Baby is a dreary piece that is meant to be an ode to her children. It evokes the feeling of Everytime (rightfully so, because both songs have the same producer), but lacks the lyrical power of that song. Instead, My Baby contains such moving quotes as "my baby boo" and "I smell your breathe/it makes me cry." Gross. The latter quote sounds like it would be more effective as an insult. The only positive aspect about this song is that Britney actually appears to be giving a genuine vocal performance. It barely convinces me that she cares about her kids. Barely. However, that doesn't mean I want to listen to it. If Britney would take this vocal and apply it to a song that doesn't sound like Dear Diary 2.0, then she could have a hit (Note: I actually like the song Dear Diary, despite it's cheesiness. However, I think the fact that she was a teenager when she recorded that made it seem more legitimate).

The rest of the album is a bit of a mixed bag. Blur and Unusual You take Britney's sound in a new direction, which could have made for an interesting album concept. Unusual You is particularly good, but probably doesn't have the hook to make it as a single. Mmm Papi and Mannequin seem very average. Mmm Papi actually has a pretty catchy beat, but the second you pay attention to the lyrics, things get weird. Is the song about a lover? Her actual father? Either way, I'm uncomfortable. Also, who says "lovey"? Lace and Leather is enjoyable for its bass line, but that novelty wears out after about a minute of the song. Shattered Glass is another potential single, but with the obvious choice of Kill the Lights and my personal hope that Out From Under makes the cut, I'm not completely optimistic that Shattered Glass will get the attention it deserves. None of these songs are complete disasters, but nothing jumps off the page.

Here is the bottom line. Circus is a return to the classic Britney formula: An album with very clear singles, a few above average tracks, filler, and the obligatory cheese factory ballad. However, if Britney really wants to bounce back, she'll have to try harder than this. Nevertheless, this isn't a weak Britney album by any means. The songs are great for dancing and the hooks are well crafted. By itself, Circus is on par with the Britney albums of years past. However, I wouldn't call it a comeback just yet.

Rating: 3/5 stars
Savage Songs: Womanizer, If U Seek Amy, Out From Under.

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