Britney Spears is hot. Again. And, yes, that does matter to her music. You see, she’s only capable of making quality music when she beams confidence on a near-constant basis. It’s why “Toxic” is one of the best pop songs of the last 20 years and “Gimme More” is its antithetical counterpart.

This is also why “Womanizer,” the first single from her new album, Circus, is so utterly listenable on the surface. Granted, the chorus is irritating, but the way she struts around the minimalist production only works when she isn’t a human car wreck. Since her voice isn’t that powerful or effective, her talent lies solely in her ability to make her songs work by sheer will. If she knows she can nail a song, then she can.

It’s this simple fact that makes Circus the album that (almost) makes us forgive her for last year’s transgressions.

Blackout was Spears emerging from a tailspin, while Circus is Spears putting her career back on a flight path. At least that was the (flight) plan. But it didn’t work out that way.

While her best albums feature a warm, sunny demeanor, Circus is cold and dark. Considering the former fits Spears’ voice and the latter does not, this record is a miscalculation, which is odd because computers probably made the bulk of the music.

Circus has a futuristic sound, keeping to that motif to a fault. The album contains nothing that sounds like it was recorded in 2008. Or even 2018. Rather, the album sounds like it was brought from the future by an assassin looking for John Connor.

In fact, there is nothing on this album, aside from Spears’ voice, suggesting this record even exists within time itself. The album is — and will be — timeless in the most literal understanding of the term: It simply does not have a time period unto itself. This presents a problem, as the best music from any genre holds up to comparison between the time in which it was released and the current time with which it’s being compared.

Thus, a song like “Shattered Glass” is a great pop song on a purely superficial level, but it doesn’t stand up to any kind of deeper critique because the song has no relevance to any era. Spears’ voice sounds ethereal at the beginning when she wails like a siren instead of a singer. And even her enunciation suggests a bizarre, alternate reality: She pronounces “glass” as “glaiy-yass” and in so doing reduces the word to a sound and renders it meaningless. That is a future in which the Anglophonic word plays no part.

The one exception to this is the tender “My Baby,” a track that actually sounds like humans made it. It’s the only time anywhere on Circus that the album can be taken seriously. The bare-bones arrangement doesn’t act as an antagonist to Spears like the rest of the album.

Lyrically, the album doesn’t tread much new ground, if any at all. The male sex seems to be the prevailing topic, whether it’s about a possible mistake last night (“Blur”), making boys jealous (“Lace and Leather”) or simply being in love (“Baby”).

There are some great ideas here, but they simply don’t sound real. Spears should’ve taken the red pill instead.

2 stars out of 5