Well, she did it. Britney Spears now has her comeback. Her new album debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's main album chart and moved nearly twice as many units in its first week as last year's intended comeback, Blackout, which peaked at No. 2. And Spears has already scored two chart-topping pop hits from the new set. Obviously, her media blitz worked: Pandering to society's moralistic mainstream by 'fessing up as out-of-control last year, yet straight and sober now, and working to get her life back on track. After fits and starts, the little teen coquette is growing up. To paraphrase an earlier hit, the 27-year-old non-custodial mother of two is now no longer a girl, finally a woman.
Or is she? You ever get the feeling you're being used? Just one of many being played by a master of the game?
''Faking like a good one, but I call 'em like I see 'em. I know what you are, what you are, baby,'' Spears sings on ''Womanizer,'' her blaring and audacious No. 1 single. For all her faults, and for all our doubts about how genuine her public persona really is, Spears has never failed at making an appealing album. She and her handlers know just what it takes to turn us on, to keep us falling prey.
Last year's Blackout was a compelling collection of heavily produced electro-pop that took by surprise the many people who actually gave it a chance. It was an unexpectedly strong set - her best yet - at a time when she was at her weakest point. Releasing a new set now, so soon after everything, is a shameless move. No sane, self-respecting person should scream this loudly for attention. But Spears is nothing if not shameless -- and she has nothing to be ashamed of with Circus. She may not be the ''Queen of Pop,'' as she so brazenly rechristens herself on one song here, but she proves she has learned greatly from her mentor Madonna.
Like Madonna, Spears knows the key is to work with the right producers. For Circus, Spears re-teamed with pretty much all of those responsible for her successes during her career's now 10-year span. Bloodshy & Avant, the team behind her Grammy-winning dance classic ''Toxic,'' returns to produce the sweet ''Unusual You.'' Spears channels Imogen Heap as she flutters her digitally processed voice between octaves, singing unusually about someone unusually nice she could get used to. Meanwhile, Spears has also re-teamed with Guy Sigsworth, responsible for Spears' best hit ballad to date, ''Everytime,'' who works with Spears here to produce the charming if a bit too paint-by-numbers ballad ''Out from Under,'' as well as the trite ''My Baby.''
After launching Spears' career and solidifying his tenure as an A-List pop producer with ''...Baby One More Time,'' Swedish Svengali Max Martin returns to create another standout track to add to the artist's repertoire. ''Love me, hate me, say what you want about me. But all of the boys and all of the girls are beggin' to, if you seek Amy,'' Spears sings, about, well -- what is ''If U Seek Amy'' about? Is Amy a new Facebook friend? Maybe ''Amy'' is a euphemism. It's definitely someone or something Spears - and, from the sounds of it, everyone else at the club - is looking for. Sounds suspicious. But it also, literally, sounds delicious - the timpani trills at the end of each descending measure in the chorus, and then rings out the song in triumphantly dramatic fashion.
As the album goes on, you start to wonder just how genuine Britney's public reformation is. There's the puzzling ''If You Seek Amy.'' And then comes ''Blur,'' where Spears' memory fails her. ''Can't remember what I did last night,'' she sings. ''Maybe I shouldn't have given in, but I just couldn't fight.'' It's her prerogative to have indiscretions every now and then, of course - she is human, after all. But shouldn't she be trying to convince us that she's in control of things now? Still, you have to appreciate Spears' willingness - and especially her ability - to stir things up.