With some well-known artists, a new record offers a chance to see inside their heads and to get a personal glimpse of how their latest public trials and tribulations are reflected in their art.

Not Britney Spears. She isn't much of a songwriter, and she's rarely been celebrated for being clever or insightful. In recent years, the popwreck has been mostly a vehicle for others' talents a slick new model waiting for the right driver to steer her in a winning direction.

And with the help of the right producers, Spears has churned out a couple of great songs in the last few years.

Still, her latest album, "Circus," might disappoint anyone who hoped Britney would get up close and personal, musically speaking, about losing her kids, or losing her mind.

That said, this effort from Spears and her stable of songwriters and producers should please the millions of fans who like her music the way it is.

From the start, "Circus" mimics other Spears releases with a big-beat dance single and countless vague references to her fight with the spotlight that has defined her public persona over the last four years a time that has seen her as the most-Googled name on the planet.

The songs sounds like the Spears we know. Her cartoon- cutsey vocals are all over lead single "Womanizer," and her familiar, Pro Tools-enhanced intonation in "If U Seek Amy" has you listening closely to what she's singing. (Did she just really say that? Yes she did.)

And only Spears would randomly throw down a sappy, overblown ballad like "My Baby" a song she co-wrote about her children at the end of a record that couldn't sound any less intimate. Personalizing her music has never been one of Spears' strong suits. (Inspiring the Great Midriff Craze of 2000? There, she was great.)

But she's been getting better. Her previous outing, "Blackout," garnered solid critical reviews last year when it landed on shelves and stayed there, gathering dust and becoming Spears' first-ever record to not go platinum.

The warm critical landing pad was surprising because the album was released amid Spears' public fallout, which came to a pinnacle via her disastrous "Gimme More" performance at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards. But with "Blackout," at least Spears' writers were smartly taking the self-deprecating route. The best song on the record, "Piece of Me," was a triumph that acknowledged Spears' problems with lines that included, but weren't limited to, "I'm Miss Bad Media Karma/Another day another drama." You won't find that winking nod anywhere in "Circus." "Womanizer" is the straightforward "Boy-don't- try-to- front/I-know-just- what-you-are" song set to wicked production and an absurdly weak bridge.

And while you might think "Circus" is a knowing tip to the three-ring spectacle that is Spears' life, the track itself is much less interesting. "I'm a put-on-a-show kinda girl," Spears declares in the title track, which features Spears calling herself a ringleader, the front seat (as opposed to the back seat), a firecracker and a performer whose dance floor is the stage. The song is bland enough that it could have worked equally well for a number of performers, including Katy Perry, Christina Aguilera or Nelly Furtado.

(That being said, "Circus" is by far the hottest production on the record. The song will fill dance floors until Spears' next release, surely.)

"Kill the Lights" is decent filler for a Spears record, even if the look-at-me-I'm-famous lyrics would have worked better for Spears' sophomore record, 2000's "Oops!. . .I Did It Again." And the delightfully bizarre and suggestive "If U Seek Amy" is the CD's most fascinating track. The song might not click on first listen, but you'll eventually hear the play on phonetics on a second or third listen assuming you give it that many. (We recommend you do.) And what do we think of Spears laying it all out there so plainly?

It's trashy and clever, and it's also quite fun. And fun is exactly what Spears should be aiming for. She got her start making the kids dance, and a couple of years later she officially told parents she was over being a role model. If Spears truly is the next Madonna as many predict, like it or not she needs to start having some fun and letting go some of the tricks of the trade she employed as a little girl.

Bashing Spears' legendarily lame ballads is something music critics take tremendous pleasure in, but we'll save you a lengthy trouncing. Suffice it to say, "Out From Under" sounds like a Backstreet Boys B-side, and "My Baby" comes off like a misguided demo from an unknown artist.

Records like "Circus" and "Blackout," too should have everybody (labels included) embracing the digital revolution. Sample a couple of songs online, download a couple and everybody wins. That "Blackout" never went platinum wasn't such a big surprise especially since its two lead tracks went platinum.

Spears should expect more of the same here and on future releases until she has it together enough to release a cohesive set of songs.

Ricardo Baca: 303-954-1394 or rbaca@denverpost.com