November 17, 2008
Britney Spears: Circus (Album Review)
Donâ€™t worry Muusers: I have, in fact, survived the Circus of Britney Spears. Sure, thereâ€™s been some scrapes and claw marks along the way. Iâ€™ve been manhandled by a duo of evil clowns, nearly fed to the lions and tigers, and somewhere along the way, I distinctly recall being forced to slap a drunken hooker. Luckily, I managed to elbow my way out from under the tent flapâ€¦Some might even say I lived to tell. And so, the adventure begins:
Click â€œRead Moreâ€¦â€ for the track-by-track, or continue on for the overall analysis.
It’s the proper opener for the album, providing great promise for what is to come. Itâ€™s been played to death around the country (Thankfully!), and Iâ€™m grateful for all of the success it has amassed. However, in comparison to the other fifteen tracks, â€œWomanizerâ€ is comparably mediocre. Itâ€™s a teaser of a comeback, though intensely devoid of the richer quality stemming from lead-off singles like â€œGimme Moreâ€ or â€œâ€¦Baby.â€
The albumâ€™s title track also happens to be its highlight: I found it impossible to move forward from “Circus” without having to repeat it three times. Youâ€™d think the excitement would stall at the sweat-drenched, anticipation building bridge, but no: The chugging, ringtone-ready chorus comes storming in with an awe-inspiring amount of attitude-infused energy, roaring in like a classic Britney stormer: â€œWhen I crack that whip, everybody gonâ€™ trip, just like a circus.â€
Once the track breaks into its all-too-brief middle eight, B takes to the floor. â€œIâ€™m runninâ€™ this,â€ she proclaims across the squeaks and squeals, providing for what could only be an epic dance sequence when finally performed live. â€œCircusâ€ is absolutely instant; an unstoppable explosion of energy and sound that deserves a killer amount of promotion and attention. With any luck, this will shortly become iconic.
â€œOut From Underâ€
Britneyâ€™s version of the Joanna Pacitti original translates into a beautifully breathy mixture of Britâ€™s near-breakable vocals and melancholy delivery. Thanks to the soothing addition of Guy Sigsworthâ€™s layered, organic electronica and twisted guitar flairs, â€œOut From Underâ€ is by all means gorgeous. However, as her number one fan, I am morally responsible to dish it out as needed: The vocals are far too safe. Britney Spears is, and I will defend this with my last breath, a wonderful singer. Sure, she tends to teeter-tot her way through her live ballads with enough nervous warbling to force anyone to hold their breath until that final note is reached, but sheâ€™s still demonstrated her studio ability to belt in the past (See: first album.) So, when I found B traveling up to that safe, secure upper register for the higher notes of â€œOut From Under,â€ I was initially disappointed. The soft crooning of â€œMy Babyâ€ is understandable, but here? I could have done with some yelling. Still, I cannot be mad, for this is undeniably a beautiful track.
â€œKill The Lightsâ€
“Kill The Lights” is very much in the same vein as Blackout, sonically speaking. This isnâ€™t surprising, considering the trackâ€™s producer, Danja, was responsible for many of the highlights from her last album. Now, first up for discussion is the producer’s voice-over announcement at the songâ€™s opening: Many fans are wary about his proclamation of Britneyâ€™s newly formed status as â€œQueen of Pop,â€ and letâ€™s face itâ€¦So am I. So letâ€™s pretend he doesnâ€™t say it, okay? After the first three glittering tracks of Circus, the up-tempo urban stomper comes tearing in with a jarring air of cockiness along with its thick smacker of a beat. In all honesty, â€œKill The Lightsâ€ would have probably performed better on Blackout. Nonetheless, Britneyâ€™s scorching verse vocals, the trackâ€™s addictive thumpa-thump beat, and the many memorable lyrical moments (â€œIs that money in your pocket, or you happy to see me?â€) make the song entirely too good to be ignored.
With the combination of those electro-glitch opening beats and Britâ€™s sexified chants of â€œhoo-oh,â€ the opening of “Shattered Glass” is already far too much anticipation to bear. Playing like the glittery interpretation of her unreleased â€œSheâ€™ll Never Be Me,” “Shattered Glass” is a major teaser of a track: The excellently crafted, whirling bridge takes us nowhere and leaves us hanging dry, falling one chorus short of perfection. Aside from a tantalizing beat breakdown near the trackâ€™s finish, “Shattered Glass” never fully resolves itself into a complete track. Nonetheless, the sound is incredibly in sync with classic Britney or Oops…Britney, providing a great wash of nostalgia upon first listen.
If U Seek Amy
First, the bad news: Regardless of what Max Martin claims, this is not the greatest track of his career. That title will be awarded to either â€œSince U Been Goneâ€ or â€œ…Baby One More Time.” Enough said. Now for the good news: “If U Seek Amy” is probably one of his best.
If you havenâ€™t already caught the obscure song titleâ€™s ulterior meaning, try saying it three times fast. No? Try it slow. Still nothing? Fine: F-U-C-K me. Yepâ€¦Giggle it out, because itâ€™s just as delicious as it appears. The stomp-happy, horn-heavy swayer saunters in with a delicious amount of cheekiness, proving to be as much fun as the title suggests. I can’t thank Max enough for this one, and more specifically, for scribing the line, “All of the boys and all of the girls are begging to If U Seek Amy.” It’s destined to be a classic Britney moment. Then there’s that â€œOh baby, baby, babyâ€ trill throughout the slowed middle eight. Is that an allusion to the duoâ€™s original masterpiece? I sure hope so!
Bloodshy & Avant have answered a fan boyâ€™s prayer, and the results are most bountiful, creating a brooding piece comparable to the singer’s most mature track to date: â€œAnd Then We Kiss.â€ Intentionally over-processed vocals mold Britney’s vocals into a most unusual, minor-key swept alien voice, slightly reminiscent to that of Kylieâ€™s â€œSpeakerphone.â€ It’s still quite a stripped piece, entirely fragile as Britney ponders her impossible love: â€œDidnâ€™t anyone tell you? Youâ€™re supposed to break my heart, so why havenâ€™t you?â€ Adding the vocals along with the ghostly, Enya-esque background breaths and the forlorn piano chordsâ€¦Itâ€™s enough to reduce a boy to tears.
â€œBlurâ€ seems to be the one track thatâ€™s received the most widespread criticism as far as I can tell, ranging from utter love at first play to puzzled disinterest. For me, it was fairly easy to immediately embrace â€œBlurâ€ as the dizzying, clouded continuation of In The Zone‘s â€œEarly Mornin.â€ â€œTurn the lights out, this shitâ€™s way too fucking bright,â€ Britney murmurs into the drifting first verse. The track spins round and round in its electronica-infused manner, somewhat reminiscent of Rihannaâ€™s â€œRehab.” â€œBlurâ€ is very modern and very well crafted; a splurge of slipping memory and incoherence.
The first of the two songs created by Nicole Morier of Electrocute, â€œMmm Papiâ€ is just plain silly. A briefly ballistic combination of twinkling electronic beats, electronic guitar riffs, and, much to my delight, many signature Britney sex yelps and shouts. Nothing in the song compares to the middle eight breakdown however, as the singer takes to the mic and declares: â€œNow see, Iâ€™m mommyâ€¦And that makes you Papi. And that makes us loveyâ€¦Ow!” she squeals before the track bursts back into its trippy electro-twinkles. Completely fun, completely ridiculous. How I’ve missed this!
As soon as it enters the airwaves, â€œMannequinâ€ declares itself to be an strictly business Britney affair with its dance-floor prepped beats and smooth talking, nonsensical verses. Iâ€™m still slightly mixed about the choruses howling cries of â€œScream!â€ and â€œCry!â€ (Itâ€™s a little frightening, to be honest!), but the intoxicating lyrical looseness of the song is pure, slippery seduction. â€œMannequinâ€ is the type of song I want memorized immediately, because itâ€™s probably a whole lot more fun when you can sing along. The middle eight also offers another delicious dance break down opportunity for Circus, securing â€œMannequinâ€ as one of the albumâ€™s most immediate, dance friendly tunes. On a side note, does anyone else hear elements of Frou Frou‘s “Must Be Dreaming” within Britney’s vocal delivery/processing? It’s uncanny!
Lace & Leather
â€œFrench fingertips, red lips, bitch is dangerous,â€ Lady B breathes as she sashes her way into her sassiest attempt on the album. The backing tune is pure â€˜80â€™s, though Iâ€™m having trouble pinpointing the exact source: There are elements of classic Madonna (Even hearing a bit of â€œDance 2Nightâ€ from her latest), an ever so slight bass-and-horns swagger of Grace Jones, and some definite Control era Janet Jackson moments. By the time weâ€™ve entered the chorus, Iâ€™m completely sold. Why? The â€œPush Itâ€ inspired breathe-and-gasp background vocals, morphing the track into an all sass, stripper-esque stomper. And how about that brief electro-guitar solo? Yummy!
With the opening lyric, â€œTiny hands, yes thatâ€™s you,â€ Iâ€™m willing to bet the vast majority of non-hardcore listeners will chuckle and skip over to the bonus tracks. Iâ€™ll admitâ€¦Even I winced for a moment. Honestly though, itâ€™s incredibly difficult to be critical of Britneyâ€™s self-penned ode to her children, considering its importance to her. â€œMy Baby” is a wispy, paper-thin ballad aided by some minor Sigsworth’s strings, drawing the regular edition of Circus to a close. Moreover, “My Baby” the most representative of Britneyâ€™s essence: It’s impossibly pure, flowing with soft, well-intentioned warmth and innocence, a final reminder of the pop princess’ ceaseless fragility.
Sadly, the tenderness of â€œMy Babyâ€ is quite literally ripped apart with the introduction of the blippy, shrieking synths of Blackoutâ€™s stomping success track, a completely unfitting addition to the Circus lineup. Hearing it alongside the other fifteen tracks only serves to highlight Blackoutâ€™s bleak frigidity, as “Radar” invades the airwaves with its repetitive, bleating blare. Rumor has it that the track was included to make up to the producers Bloodshy & Avant, who were promised a proper single release of â€œRadarâ€ last year. However, due to Britneyâ€™s personal affairs, the release never came into fruition. While the ordeal makes sense to me, itâ€™s still difficult to accept this all-too-intrusive track into the bunch.
â€œRock Me Inâ€
â€œRock Me Inâ€ is deeply rooted in the musical styling of its writer, Nicole Morier, who comprises one half of Electrocute, which is probably why the track that would have fit in perfectly with the electro-retro duoâ€™s latest EP, On The Beat. â€œRock Me Inâ€ is a pleasant, swirly trip across the galaxy, energetic and flashy like an intergalactic beach party. I donâ€™t find it strong enough to be an album track, but Iâ€™m quite glad this one saw the light of day.
Oh, how I’ve missed phone related songs! The delicious raunchfest known as “Phonography” offers up some less than subtle references toâ€¦Well, what else? Good, old fashioned phone sex. Another track that vaguely brings Kylieâ€™s â€œSpeakerphoneâ€ to mind, â€œPhonographyâ€ operates like the slutty older sister of In The Zoneâ€™s bonus track, â€œDonâ€™t Hang Up,â€ adding elements of dirty, Euro-Disco and chanting taunts. I absolutely adore the track, and I find its exclusion from the main tracklisting to be a true pop injustice.
Recalling the greater moments of Gwen Stefaniâ€™s solo career, â€œAmnesiaâ€ is a â€˜80â€™s tinged, headstrong stroll directly into the territory of â€œcool.â€ With the help of Lady GaGa, Britney slips into a slinky, longing little vocal routine that completely works for her, even though itâ€™s an entirely new sound for her to explore. Another track unjustly subjected to the status of â€œbonus,â€ â€œAmnesiaâ€ should really be up there with the best of â€˜em.
Somewhere between the chilly, ice-coated electro stings of â€œBreak the Iceâ€ and the gritty, slap-happy bass of â€œGet Naked,â€ Blackout suddenly ran cold. The chirpy, cheerful chanteuse that I knew and loved now somehow found herself wedged into the confines of a dark, frigid vocoder, battling her own inner demons at the time. It was a cold, dark album, devoid of soul and spirit.
Now donâ€™t get me wrongâ€¦The music was thereâ€”In fact, Blackout remains Britneyâ€™s sonic peak. Even Circus cannot compete with the instantaneous, ferocious quality of the Blackout session tracks. However, Britney Spears was not featured on that record. She was credited, she was singing on those tracks, but there was nothing familiar to be found.
One year later: With a refreshed image and a recovered sense of hope, Circus offers the fans a proper comedown from the tumultuous experience over the past four years: It’s a a bouncy, bubbly romp, happily hopping between killer choruses and delicate verses. With a mixture of In The Zoneâ€™s exploratory pop and Britneyâ€™s seemingly unapologetic camp quality, Circus is what I had assumed Blackout to be in the first place.
I know that now, compared to the impossible standards set by Britneyâ€™s prior release, some fans will inevitably feel the pangs of disappointment as a result of this albumâ€™s comparably tame sensibility. However, those looking for a richer, colorfully diverse experience will find solace here. From the pervish, wacky space vibes of “Mmm Papi,” to the ultimate floor commander known as “Circus,” to the sass-n-boots, glittering ’80’s stomp of “Leather & Lace, Circus offers a little taste of everything.
Yet as odd as it sounds, the greatest gift of Circus is that the album remins wonderfully, humanly flawed. Unlike the processed-to-perfection robotic acrobatics of Blackout, the missteps and flaws pour out from the Circus sessions: The songs are hardly as instant or accessible (“Blur’), incomplete (“Shattered Glass”), and even off-putting to casual listeners (“My Baby”). Yet in this way, the experience feels legitimate, allowing a listener to find beauty within the flaws.
With a world tour in the works for early spring ’09 and a scrumptious schedule of promo appearances merely weeks away, Circus has got the musical goods packed to keep the energy rolling for a lengthy amount of time. As a fan, I couldnâ€™t be happier with the output: Circus is Britneyâ€™s return to grace, both in form and functionality. Not only because it demonstrates the sly confidence of the Britney of yesteryear in stunning dancefloor stompers such as â€œCircus,â€ â€œMannequin,â€ and â€œIf U Seek Amy,â€ but because of the album’s promise for an eventual musical evolution: â€œUnusual You,â€ â€œPhonography,â€ and â€œBlurâ€ all offer hints at this subtle maturation; only time will tell if it will now blossom into something deeper.
Recommendations for the next go around? Stick with what you know, and allow them to push you even further: Bloodshy & Avant, Max Martin, and Guy Sigsworth have all grown with you Britney, and your continuing collaborations are shining examples of these wonderful relationships.
Above all, Britney Spears has proven herself to be the entertainer I have always adored and will continue to love. The album is sweet, sexy, and entirely fulfilling. Perhaps the definitive album of the year, Circus delivers in its purpose: Pure, unapologetic pop unto its innermost parts.