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Britney Spears
Circus jonny mugwump , December 2nd, 2008 13:39

Blackout was the best album of last year. No, I’m not being ironic or terribly post-modern or anything like that. It sounded a century ahead of its time. When I drunkenly proclaimed this to a group of people from the music industry earlier this summer I was given the kind of look generally reserved for somebody who had just gleefully waxed lyrical about their latest sexual encounter with their dead grandmother.

I really had no interest in Britney before this, except maybe when it came to singles 'Slave 4 U' and naturally, 'Toxic'. Whether Britney is simply a body acting for the machinations of others becomes kind of irrelevant. For me Britney came to life just as she was accused by everyone else of becoming the BritneyBot, criticised for allowing her voice to be manipulated to the point of electro-absurdity. These same critics would equally castigate her for being permanently stuck in a 16-year-old's mindset. Instead, the bravery and willingness to sacrifice the voice for the song truly liberated her music. She ended up in a virtual hall of mirrors as inventive as it was melodic, existing alongside some truly out there corners of pop music (usually at the hands of producer Danja who, it transpires, might be largely responsible for the wholesale resurrection of Timbaland’s career over the last year or so).

So, we come to Circus. The weight of media expectation is huge. Blackout truly divided critics and it’s hard to foresee what would be regarded as being a ‘return to form’ considering just how radical her last work was. Fans, critics, tabloids and the public all want a piece of her, but these pieces are all conflicting and contradictory.

Circus is nowhere near as cohesive as Blackout. Two songs, the Guy Sigsworth-produced 'Out From Under' and 'My Baby' are appallingly saccharine, pop ballad confections. These are tellingly the most under-produced of the songs here, employing acoustic guitars, straight-ahead melodies, and a minimum of effects. 'MMM Papi' is just a bit too silly. Most preposterously, 'Radar' from the last album, is here again. There is a possibility it’s been remixed but I honestly can’t tell - it might be minutely slower but otherwise it’s exactly the same.

OK, now we’ve got these out of the way, ring the bells and sacrifice the servants because the rest of the album is outstanding pop magic.

'Womanizer' would be more forgettable if it wasn’t for the fact that the lyrics are really smart and kick-ass and the chorus is a just HUGE rush of energy - fast, hard and funny. The title track of the album reveals the "Circus" to be what Britney trails in her daily wake: “All eyes on me / in the centre of the ring / just like a circus”. A paean to her performance adrenalin, it’s a medium-paced, big power-popper topped with an orbit-esque guitar. The lyrics tie in with a lot of what Charles Ubaghs was writing on this site last week, but it also highlights what is so unique about Britney right now - the fuck you attitude. Despite everything, regardless of the personal destruction and undoubted hell she might still be haunted by, within the fictional space of the music, this woman couldn’t give a damn. She rightly taunts the world around her, sounding utterly defiant. There is no place for apology or humble platitudes.

There are safer routes for a pop star, but uncompromisingly burying yourself in a hardcore cybernetic production is certainly not one of them. Opening with some truly loopy "la la las" 'Mannequin' kicks in with a sci-fi synth, big blocks of buried nosie and a relentless chant of “I don’t care / I don’t care/ I don’t care”, with some seriously creepy and brave backing vocals in the form of a wordless male spiral. 'If U Seek Amy' - “oh baby baby have you seen Amy tonight / is she in the bathroom / Is she smoking up outside” [Has she been ripping off Suede lyrics? - Ed] - is just a giant, stomping beast of a tune, taking a male point of view with a truly infectious and mocking chorus. It’s three-and-a-half minutes of pure genius.

Sadly Danja only makes two appearances on Circus. 'Kill The Lights' ("You don’t like me / I don’t like you / it don’t matter / only difference / you still listen / I don’t have to") is a queasy gothic monster, sub-bass from the earth’s core, slo-mo brass eruptions. 'Blur' comes on with a 21st Century reworking of the melody from the Stones’ 'Let It Loose'. It’s about getting fucked up and not remembering what you did the night before, or who you just woke up next to. The production is slightly starker than usual for our man and it walks an incredibly difficult line between poignancy and confusion, Britney never putting a foot wrong. Again, no surrender.

Circus closes with 'Amnesia', for all the world sounding like Phil Spector reborn for the club generation. Its funny, carefree and a massive high.

There can be no doubting that there a few duffers here but who really cares? In the midst of so much personal chaos, this most mystifying of pop stars, this apparent puppet on so many strings has released 30 minutes of pure, out-there sonic luxury.