The Good: Moments when vocals actually seem natural, Some catchy tunes
The Bad: Overproduced, Short, Derivative sound, Repetitive, Largely terrible lyrics
The Basics: Circus is a very average, short pop album that alternates between repetitive and unmemorable and soulful and equally forgettable.
It seems I have somehow gotten sucked into listening to the music of Britney Spears. Go figure. I am not exactly sure how that happened, but it seems that it has. What is even more strange is that as I listen to some of it, I find that I can differentiate between the massively overproduced drivel and some moments when Spears actually has something to say lyrically that she does with her natural voice and a decent musical sensibility. I found this on her studio album Circus, which surprised me because the four singles released from the album were so terrible, overproduced and banal that when I began listening to the album, I absolutely loathed it. And while I still would not recommend Circus, the best tracks on the album are not ones that one would hear by listening to the radio or any of Britney Spears' compilations.
Circus is part of the Britney Spears comeback that occurred following the celebrity's divorce from Kevin Federline and it was one of the bestselling pop albums of 2008. While sales do not translate to quality necessarily, on Circus, Britney Spears surrounds herself with people who clearly know what they are doing as far as marketing singles and making money, if not actually making music. On Circus, the listener is assaulted with a strange combination of melodic and soulful and repetitive and overproduced songs. Outside all the hype surrounding Spears and Circus, the album is largely forgettable and when it is not unmemorable, it is painfully annoying.
With only thirteen tracks, clocking out at 46:15, Circus is more showmanship than substance. Britney Spears and her people define the thirteenth track as a "bonus" track, though there are no versions of the c.d. that lack "Radar" and Spears is presented on the disc as a perky showwoman. But Spears, as one might suspect, is more sparkle and less substance. On Circus, Spears is credited as a co-writer on only three of the songs. Some of the lamest songs had up to seven co-writers (none of whom were Spears) which is astonishing when one considers how many times the same song repeats the same five words. Britney Spears plays no instruments on Circus, though she does provide the lead vocals on every song. Spears was not involved with the production of any of the songs, nor of the entire album; instead, she once again illustrates herself to be an product of the studios as opposed to the vision of an actual artist.
Britney Spears provides the lead vocals on Circus and this is very much a crapshoot depending on the song. While singles like "Womanizer" and "If You Seek Amy" are overproduced to the point that Spears' vocals sound mechanized. But unlike many of the other Britney Spears albums, on Circus Spears actually manages to get her actual voice presented. On slower songs like "Out From Under" and the more soulful "Unusual You," Spears actually sings in a way that her natural voice may be heard and it is not whiney, tinny or annoying. Instead, Spears actually illustrates for a few moments the talent that she had which must have been used to get her originally signed.
Unfortunately, that is not the case on the entire album. Much of the album is repetitive and overproduced and Spears squeaks out the words of others with no real grace or sense of presentation to it. She mumbles through the lines to both "Radar" and "If You Seek Amy" with such inefficiency that one wonders how either became radio hits outside the obvious basslines and production elements. When the album is not being obvious and difficult to understand, the overproduced tracks are creepy, most notably "Mmm Papi," with its disturbingly close to incestuous presentation when the lyrics "You can come take me away / There's no pressure play all day / Hold me tight and don't let go! / Mmm Papa love you" are presented in a pouty, moody fashion.
As for the music, it is hard to describe much of what is on Circus as music. I write this not as some stodgy elder who does not see contemporary pop music as legitimate, but rather as a fan of all styles of music who cannot find much recognizable in the instrumentation of the songs on this album. The catchy jingles which accompany Spears' production-obscured vocals are more assembled from samples and mixing boards than from actual instruments. Drum machines and keyboard samples are more prevalent on Circus than anything resembling an actual musical instrument. Like most of the works of Britney Spears, these have limited musical value and instead have the pop up and down progressions of the average commercial jingle.
Circus is dominated by pop-dance numbers and even as I praise the more mellow ballads like "Out From Under," after listening to the album eight times, I cannot consciously recall the tune to it. Instead, the album's most memorable songs are the highly repetitive riffs that Spears and FM radio have pounded into the listener's heads. But as far as enduring qualities, Circus has very few of those. Unlike her prior album, Spears is not obsessed with her own sexuality anymore on Circus. While "Leather And Lace" is obviously sexual, more of the album is about relationships and the feeling Spears has of being trapped in the spotlight.
While the radio hits on Circus are so repetitive one has to wonder if Spears is just trying to make a minimum song and album duration to get the songs played and album released, the non-radio songs are not honestly better. On songs like "Blur," Spears is mouthing the words of her producers with little panache. She sings, "Can you calmly hand me all my things? / I think I need an aspirin / Better yet, I need to get up outta here / I gotta get my head right / Where the hell am I? / Who are you? / What'd we do / Last night" ("Blur") with no real soul or sense that she feels the lines.
But most of the lyrics she sings are inherently without depth or soul. Britney Spears on Circus is largely a mouthpiece for untalented writers and producers who manage to make repeating lines like "Kill the Lights! / (Take 'em out, turn 'em off, break 'em down) / Kill the Lights! / (Don't be scared, make a move, see me now?) / Kill the Lights! / (I've seen you, watching me, watching you) / Kill the Lights! / You can't handle the truth / What happened to you" ("Kill The Lights")? Indeed, the only thing more ridiculous than songs that simply sing about what it is like to be Britney Spears or in the public limelight is the fact that those songs are not written by Spears! Whatever credibility Spears might have by singing songs about herself are lost when one considers that she has so little creative control over her works.
Ultimately, Circus falls flat because it is lacking in anything memorable or sharp. Instead, it is common and the repetitive nature of so many of the songs makes the album indistinct pop music. Those who want pop with soul will find this album lacking and those hoping for something that will endure will also discover this burns out ridiculously fast. Moreover, this version of Circus is subpar because there is a two-disc version that offers listeners a bit more.
The best song on Circus is "Out From Under," the low point is "Radar."
For other reviews of Britney Spears music, please check out my reviews of:
. . . Baby One More Time (single)
Don't Let Me Be The Last To Know (single)
The Singles Collection
For other music reviews, please visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!
© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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