The showbiz-circus theme of Britney Spears' sixth album is as unsubtle as the big top itself, but there are few performers for whom the metaphor is so apt, both in her personal life and on record. Spears specializes in the sort of songs dominated by smoke and mirrors, and when ensconced within those trappings, she reaches the highest heights of shiny dance music. Hence, Circus is exhilarating when Spears is at her most artificial, but it stumbles under some misguided attempts at sentiment.
More than on last year's flat-sounding Blackout, Spears sounds like she's put some real effort into her Circus performances. While her vocal range remains as limited as ever, she displays an interesting ability to disappear into various personae: She snarls and barks to an aggressive beat on the paparazzi-taunting "Kill The Lights," pouts and chirps through the endearingly silly "Mmm Papi," and takes the virgin/whore character she's been perfecting since her 1999 debut to glorious new levels of innuendo on "If U Seek Amy." (Say the title aloud.) None of these personas or subjects are unusual in pop music, but Spears' enthusiasm, signature nasal coo, and odd hiccup-y pronunciations make it all seem uniquely her.
Someone so obviously comfortable and capable within the realm of spectacle should probably stay away from attempts at sincerity or introspection, yet Circus turns out a couple of schmaltzy ballads overseen by producer Guy Sigsworth. Slowing it down has never been Spears' strong suit—though the R&B-laced; slow jam "Blur" finds an interesting middle ground—but the ballads, "Out From Under" and "My Baby," are about five years out of date, and her vocals seem anemic and distracted in spite of the confessional lyrics. For better or worse, Spears is, as she says on the title track, "a put-on-a-show type of girl," and when she sticks to that credo, Circus works.