“What happened?” Britney Spears mutters during what is easily the most disturbing song of her career, “Blur.” It arrives in the middle of her sixth studio album, “Circus” (Jive), out Tuesday (which also happens to be Spears’ 27th birthday).
It’s the latest comeback in a career larded with tabloid travail, marketing gimmicks and, not coincidentally, more than 83 million album sales worldwide since 1999. “Circus” capitalizes on Spears’ troubles by turning them into pop songs. And what twisted songs they are.
“Blur” describes the aftermath of what sounds like a drug- or alcohol-fueled night that ends with the narrator passing out after a date-rape encounter.
The arrangement adds to the unsettling atmosphere: The keyboards sound like they were recorded underwater and a hi-hat chatters like a gossip columnist.
“Who are you?/What’d we do?” Spears sings in a shell-shocked voice. “Hope I didn’t, but I think I might’ve ... Maybe I shouldn’t have given in/But I just couldn’t fight.”
One hopes the song isn’t autobiographical, but who really knows? Such is the state of affairs on Planet Britney. Multiple divorces, a drawn-out custody battle and numerous public meltdowns - including a woozy performance on the MTV Video Music Awards in 2007 - have contributed to a public perception of Spears as a celebrity train wreck.
But her record sales have remained vital, her brand name surprisingly strong. Last year’s “Blackout” boasted some of the strongest songs of her career, though Spears sounded barely there, her voice distorted beyond recognition. The album was corporate pop in the extreme, the work of a team of high-priced collaborators who wrote, arranged and produced a market-friendly product with Spears’ name on it. The performer’s life was such a shambles that she couldn’t even tour to promote the release.
On “Circus,” the production is once again chiseled to a cutting-edge gleam, and Spears actually sounds like an active participant. She shares writing credit on only two songs (a committee of dozens took care of the rest), but her personality and voice are once again at the forefront. The album’s first single, “Womanizer,” put her emphatically back on the pop landscape. It ranks as her first No. 1 hit since her debut single, “... Baby One More Time,” topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1999.
Back then, Spears proferred pop hooks, a Lolita smile, and vaguely risque come-ons. Her voice was never big or flexible enough to project the dramatic emotions of a diva, but she put a post-pubescent face on a production franchise. Pop gurus such as Max Martin, the Neptunes and Bloodshy and Avant scored some of their biggest hits when they hooked up with the Spears franchise. Her albums became progressively more explicit, but never more personal. They were superficial by design, skipping past the tawdry details of her tabloid misadventures to offer dance-oriented pop thrills built for sugar-buzz highs that left no long-lasting aftertaste.
“Circus” brings pop diva and troubled celebrity into closer alignment. The album artwork promises a Britney Spears album with more of an outre edge than usual; in one image, a reclining Spears laughs while accepting a birthday cake from a midget. It’s a scene that could’ve been lifted from David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet.”
The music capitalizes on and comments upon her headlines. “Kill the Lights” boasts a killer groove from producer Danja and a nasty vocal from Spears, as she plays the persecuted “Queen of Pop” to the hilt: “You don’t like me/I don’t like you/It don’t matter…. Mr. Photographer, I think I’m ready for my close-up.”
In the title song, she crows that there are only two types of people in the world, entertainers and voyeurs, leaving no doubt where she stands. “I’m a put-on-a-show kind of a girl,” she declares, comparing her need to be watched to an addiction.
The spectacle continues on the album’s most outrageous track, “If U Seek Amy.” It’s written by her former go-to writer-producer, Swedish hitmaker Martin. A walloping kick drum and a frantic keyboard support a sing-songy melody that carries an unusually explicit message. It presents Spears as both an object of desire and a punching bag for “all the boys and all the girls.” Depictions of pop stardom don’t get much more bleak.
As the album winds down, the tawdry imagery and shock-effect songs dissipate, and formula pop prevails. “Lace and Leather” stands as a blatant Madonna knockoff, while “Mmm Papi” isn’t much of a song at all. It’s a series of grunts with Spears at her most annoyingly nasal, goosed by a go-go beat,
Guy Sigsworth introduces an element of humanity with bookend ballads, one about ending a bad relationship (“Out from Under”), another about a mother’s love for her children (“My Baby”). In these relatively unadorned settings, Spears comes across a little shaky but sincere, almost a sympathetic figure. Even circus acts need a break from the high wire.
“Circus” is both an album by a pop icon and a commentary on being a pop icon. The producers and songwriters did most of the detail work, but Spears is their muse and meal ticket. Without her, the circus just wouldn’t be the same.