If You Seek Britney

“There’s only two types of people in the world,” Britney Spears opines on her new album, “the ones that entertain and the ones that observe.” From her perspective, I don’t doubt for a second that this is the truth, seeing as she’s one of the most oft observed people in American culture (or should I say surveilled?).

You knew it was only a matter of time before I wrote about Circus, her second release in twelve months. Like 2007’s Blackout, Britney’s playing again with “grown-up” rhythms and arrangements, toying with “adult-oriented” lyrics, and essentially doing a great impression of a mature person.

The album’s standouts include “Phonography,” which meditates on the joys and considerations of phone sex; “Kill the Lights,” addressed to the prying paparazzi; the syncopated “Trouble”; and even the dirty-dirty innuendo of “If You Seek Amy” is sort of fun (“All of the boys and all of the girls are begging to if you seek amy”–when you say it out loud it makes more sense). But for me, the best track is “Unusual You,” an ethereal, harmonized dance piece that evokes electronica wizzes like Imogen Heap. Simple, sparing, and with apparent unflinching honesty, the lyrics are well-suited to the music. The song’s so good it’s hard to believe it’s really a Britney Spears song.

As many wins as there are on the album, there are a bunch of missteps. The clunky, accusing “Womanizer,” aside from resurrecting a ridiculous term, sounds like a rewritten attempt at Blackout‘s “Ooh Ooh Baby,” which was about as exciting as you might expect by that title. “Mmm Papi,” while fun, feels like it would have suited Britney about five years ago, prior to making babies. The beat in “Shattered Glass” sounds so much like the song preceding it that it’s hard to tell they’re two unique tracks. Finally, “Lace and Leather” promises the Joan Jett side of Britney but delivers Elvira in her place.

We don’t turn on any of the Fox sitcoms expecting Chekov; we shouldn’t expect the sense of craft and styling from Britney that we would a singer-songwriter. It doesn’t mean that “depth” and “Britney Spears” are mutually exclusive, but there is a sense of authenticity lacking in this album. Aside from its moments approaching greatness, her producers are still reluctant to let Britney go all-out into Kylie Minogue’s territory, where pop music is fun, interesting, and irresistible.

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