What a difference a year makes in the life of Britney Spears. It’s almost impossible to conceive that at this time last year, the pop princess career was a sad, sick joke of a thing – her ability to sell records apparently inextricably linked to her ability to make tabloid headlines.  Her 2007 album Blackout was essentially the house that TMZ footage built and her pathetic appearance on that year’s VMA broadcast has become legendary for its sheer godawfulness.  But in 2008, just in time for her 27th birthday, Britney’s already back with her sixth album Circus – another cheeky title that suggests she’s well aware of what people say about her, and totally prepared to own it and bend it to her will.  (And, yes, she seems to say - because a lot of folks wouldn’t believe her - she actually has one of her own.)

As with all of her previous records, it would be easiest to dismiss Britney’s latest album as the latest segment of a written-as-it-happens VH-1 Behind the Music special.  The songs sound autobiographical, but they were all written by the expensive hired help, who, we might imagine, are just as eager as Britney to make their own mark on what exactly it is to be Britney Spears.  And Circus arrives with a readymade storyline and a set of talking points that Britney and her handlers (including her family) have been oh-so-willing to deliver in various televised outlets with the kind of zealous discipline even the most seasoned politician could be proud of.  The message being that Britney knows that her life has been a publicly staged trainwreck for the last few years, but now she’s back, she’s in control, she’s calling the shots, and that the tabloids need her more than she needs them (a direct reversal from last year, when a sleeve note thank you to the National Enquirer would have seemed in order).  Nevermind about that conservatorship.  And oh yeah, she loves being a mom.

All of this, of course, comes sweetened with a heaping tablespoon of “Superstar!” hubris – the new album’s song “Kill the Lights” opens up with a radio announcer promoting Britney from the rank of pop princess to Queen of Pop.  But the unexpected and, frankly, pretty miraculous thing about Circus is just how irrelevant all those talking points and all that braggadocio become in the face of the music itself.  And that starts with the album’s lead single.

Where Blackout‘s opening single “Gimme More” functioned mainly as a tonic for the Britney-starved (and, resultantly, died a quick death on the charts after a surging debut), Circus actually opens with a genuine hit in the form of “Womanizer”, the sort of unshakable pop single that made Britney famous to begin with – a song with all the hooky, turbo-charged tenacity of a Chihuahua puppy just discovering the power of its own unleashed genitalia, all pink and rocket-shaped and shameless.  If “Gimme More” was a mirage of what fascinated us (musically speaking) about Britney, “Womanizer” is the real deal, repetitive to the extreme, but with a feral sense of sexual vengeance, all set to Blade Runner sound effects, wailing Star Trek sirens, flashy fluorescents and hot pink neon, a pornographic video arcade in song.

Britney’s voice is, as always, punishingly digitized, but the song’s motor runs on a seemingly omnipresent chorus which relentlessly juliennes any semblance of literal or grammatical sense, reducing the song’s lyrics, such as they are, to a sequacious set of vaguely evocative phonemes which, while virtually meaningless in and of themselves, ultimately start to function as the proteins that make up the DNA of a wildly potent audio-virus dead set on world domination.  And that, more than the lyrics, is what sells the song’s storyline.

Far more convincingly than any MTV documentary, popular sit-com guest spot, or lucid morning talk show interview could, “Womanizer” makes the case for Britney’s successful re-emergence as something more than just the tabloid wreck of the year.  That it does so largely without actual, sensical words says as much about Britney – who, in person, is actually no less self-reflective and articulate than, say, former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin (and has better comic timing to boot) – as it does about the production talent she surrounds herself with – namely Britney vets like Danja, Bloodshy & Avant, and The Outsyders, along with Dr. Luke and Benny Blanco and the usual battalion of Swedes.

There’s always been something mutually parasitic about Britney’s relationships with songwriters and producers, but more than ever before, those relationships are starting to look and sound like real symbiosis.  And Circus finds that symbiosis working at something that sounds confrontationally sexy and club-ready with less of the effortful lewdness that marked (and marred) much of Blackout.  (“Mmm Papi” is a notable exception – Gwen Stefani could probably make it work.)

You won’t find song lyrics printed in the booklet of Circus and that’s fitting, because at its best (and it really doesn’t get much better than “Womanizer”), the most durable pleasures of Circus are almost pre-verbally abstract, purest sound and rhythm:  the electronic bass throb of the Guys Siggsworth-produced ballad “Out From Under” with its Ginzu-sharp synth-cymbal contours; the layers of vocal textures, spoken, sung, chanted, and “produced” on “Kill the Lights”, the way her voice becomes a mutilated sample of itself in “Shattered Glass”, to say nothing of the way it effortlessly sidewinds its way along a yo-yo melody against a digital-celestial shimmer on that song’s verses.   “Leather and Lace” rides easy on little more than a simple syncopation and a deceptively organic thumb-popping bass-line that sounds, thrillingly, like something stolen from a Kool & the Gang session, circa 1980.  (Eat your heart out, Maroon 5!)

“Unusual You” is a gorgeously understated science fiction groove – shades of the shivery Norwegian technopop of Royksopp – and with a surprisingly intimate, emotionally complex lyric (“Didn’t anyone tell you / you’re supposed to / break my heart / I expect you to / so why haven’t you?”).  But that song’s a transcendent exception on an album where mere words are rendered, at best, superfluous:  there’s nothing the lyrics of “Blur” say that the foggy nocturnal atmospherics – the muted, quivery guitar arpeggios, and the glowing, fairy-like flittering of the synthesizers – don’t convey vividly on their own.   It’s telling that the song that relies most heavily on its lyrics – the album closing “My Baby” – is the album’s only real dud.  Of course, most Britney devotees will forgive the track since it’s the only one Britney gets a writer’s credit on, and it’s clearly written as a celebration of her children, but – call me petty – I can’t get past a couplet like “I smell your breath / it makes me cry”.  (And my Inner English Professor bristles when she sings that she’s “like a performer” on the title track.)

But, seriously, that’s my biggest complaint about Circus, and frankly, the album seems to get better every time I listen to it.  The obvious argument against it is that it’s not really Britney’s music at all, but her producers’.   Which is fair enough, I suppose.  Except that she’s the one financing these producers and serving as their muse, providing a common thread of inspiration from the album’s opening ballsy squalls to its tender, murmuring conclusion.  And the fact remains that regardless of the source, Circus – as its title would suggest – is a multitudinous, electronically pulchritudinous spectacle for the ears.  It’s Britney’s best album so far, and, frankly, one of the best start-to-finish pop albums I’ve heard in a long time.  (If only I could say the same for Pink’s new one… sigh)

If you’re up for forking over a couple of extra bucks for the deluxe edition of Circus, you’ll be rewarded with a pin-up poster, a bonus DVD containing a digital photo album, a less-than-revelatory, 15-minute making-of video as well as the “director’s cut” of the “Womanizer” video.  You’ll also get three bonus tracks on the main CD – well, two really, since “Radar” is recycled from the Blackout album, but they’re both as good as anything on the main disc.  “Rock Me In” is a frantic-tempo spacey-new-wave-disco groove that’s got “single” written all over it, and “Phonography”, with its clever wordplay (on a Britney song!) and its sleek, confectionary retro-synth-pop textures, is, by far, the best tribute to phone sex this side of Nicholson Baker.  Both songs make the additional splurge for this surprisingly splurge-worthy album well worth it.