There can be nothing left to say about the sprawling, deranged mess that has been Britney's life for the past few years. The all too predictable fall from grace of overexposed, over-managed teenager to single mother with her career down the pan unfolded before the world like a rite of passage. But that was last year. 2008 has seen the veteran pop star (27 and already 16 years in the industry) emerge from the woods, apparently healed, rocking a full head of flaxen hair and cranking up the abs once more. And despite several dazzlingly awful live performances, where she has huffed and puffed through her famously energetic routines, openly miming to an open-mouthed audience, things now appear to be a lot sunnier in Britneyland; something that Circus, her sixth album, is positively hammering home. Where Blackout, her 2007 attempt, was all about the dark days and the ratty, black locks, Circus (the metaphor doesn't require much head-scratching) brings us full circle to the girl everyone fell in love with: the bubblegum lips, the coy smile and the doe eyes. "How could they?" she seems to be cooing at us from the album sleeve. In fact, the physical resemblance to a younger, less troubled Britney almost makes you wince when you think of what has befallen her since she last looked this sugary.
But don't go expecting self-pity: Circus is more about being the ringmaster than the poor, caged animal - which we are swiftly made aware of in Womanizer, a vitriolic and deeply grating tirade that drips with defiance. Some of the most high profile producers in the industry (Danja, Bloodshy & Avant and Max Martin) have been herded together to work their magic on what was presumably pretty weak raw material, with results so slick (and auto-tuned) as to often sound robotic.
Unfortunately, the results are hit and miss: Kill the Lights, a pumping, electro-backed squawl that could rival the best of Madonna's pop anthems, is a shining example of how studios can elevate a catchy tune to something infinitely more interesting, the synthesised sound and squeaked notes giving her barbed attack on the press a deranged vibe. Equally, the ambitious arrangement and slick dance grooves of Unusual You make it easily the best song on the album. But the title track is indistinguishable from any R&B radio playlist; as is Lace and Leather, and too many others where the multilayered voices (all with sinus problems, apparently) hint at what the ravages of the last few years must have wrought on her vocals.
Like any star desperate to convince their formerly adoring male fans that they've still got it, the Brit can't resist the aggressively provocative act. What once she suggested, she now screams, and after a promising first half, Mmm Papi teeters on the unsavoury. Throw in a couple of slow numbers, including the drippy toddler ode, My Baby, and what started out quite well turns out to be a mixed old bag. She may be clawing her way back up the precipice, but it's still a long way down; something she knows only too well.