In pop music, audacity pays the bills. Britney Spears knows that much, but her reach is often more awkward than it is effective. Take "If U Seek Amy," the most talked-about three minutes from her new album, Circus. What begins as a rare third-person verse for Britney ("Have you seen Amy tonight?") eventually finds its non sequitur punch line in the chorus ("All of the boys and all of the girls are beggin' to if you seek Amy") which, if you sound out those last four words, becomes "F.U.C.K. me." It's a long way to travel for such a tiny piece of naughty.
Musically, Circus is a cautious step back from last year's sonically distressed and underrated Blackout. The genuinely striking "Leather and Lace" appears late in the new album, and its slick Bootsy-esque bassline lays bare the mediocrity of the tracks preceding it. More representative of the self-proclaimed Queen of Pop's lowered bar are Circus' first two singles, "Womanizer" and the title track. They try to seize the moment with little more than programmed beats and paparazzi-baiting lyrics ("There's only two types of people in the world/The ones that entertain, and the ones that observe").
After an extended holiday in the tabloid wilderness, Britney has returned to her music post full-time. That's the good news. The bad is she still has a way to go before her records are once again as interesting as her press.