No matter what you think of her personally, even the most jaded of cynics have to acknowledge that Katy Perry is one hell of a performer — and that’s exactly what her biggest problem is.
Prior to the release of Katy Perry’s “third” album (not counting her 2001 gospel album recorded under her birth name, Katy Hudson), the end of Summer 2013 brought a seemingly endless onslaught of “big” pop music releases: brand new hit songs from Perry, Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears, and Lady Gaga (and for most of October, all these songs were displaced from the Billboard penthouse by a 16-year-old songstress named Lorde). Each song was revered and loved by each singers’ respective fanbases, but all of them also missing that culture-shaping impact that makes the the best songs not just “click” with mainstream audiences, but also transcend them. None of these tracks achieve that rare “Since U Been Gone” level of power, although, reading the intentions (and songwriters) behind them, almost all of them very much strived to be.
Gaga & Spears both crafted their lead singles to be tracks that aimed directly at the dancefloor, tracks that featured either vulgarity (Spears’ song was called “Work Bitch”, after all) or references that continue to beguile consumers at large (although Gaga has probably won Jeff Koons more notoriety than ever before) that ultimately defeated any chance of them crossing over in any big way, whittling down their fanbases instead of expanding them. Conversely, Cyrus’ and Perry’s songs (“Wrecking Ball” and “Roar”, respectively), were big, broadly appealing mainstream tunes that not only both topped the charts, but also happened to be written and produced by the same person: uber-producer Dr. Luke, the man who is almost single-handedly responsible for Katy Perry’s rapid succession of #1 hits from her last album, 2010’s blockbuster Teenage Dream.
Yet even with Teenage Dream‘s songs topping the charts again and again, it’s no surprise that people who heard the Glee version of that album’s title track found it infinitely better than the original. Why? Because that TV cover seemed to come from a place of genuine sincerity, rooted in deep emotion and sung with intention, while Perry & Luke’s version still had that artifice of performance to it. Although Perry does in fact either write or co-write all of her songs, her countless TV performances and terrible, terrible jokes at the Grammys show that no matter how hard she tries, she’ll never reach any sort of genuine catharsis with her own voice, as her performance instincts negate any sense of relatibility one can have with her. To put it another way: you’ll never see Perry cry on stage — unless it’s been planned in advance.
That being said, Perry has been able to achieve some moments of genuine pop bliss, ranging from the exciting (2008’s “Hot n Cold”) to the quietly stunning (2012’s “Wide Awake”), and that’s largely due to the production and songwriting lining up perfectly — it has little to do with her as a singer. Thus, with Prism, those expecting a sequel to Teenage Dream are getting exactly that: the same tropes, themes, and even some of the occasional production tricks all carry over, Perry revealing nothing new about herself, but still mining the same songwriting vein she’s been at without any signs of slowing down. For her fans, it’s exciting. For anyone else, it’s a disappointment.
Although set-opener “Roar” is broad and bland (please, Katy, I think there’s a few more clichés you could’ve put in the lyrics), Prism‘s first half is filled with modest surprises. “Birthday”, the catchiest thing on this disc by far, is itself a rewrite of Perry’s own “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)”, but, just as Dr. Luke and Max Martin did with Jessie J’s “Domino“, it’s a rewrite that has just enough changes in the melody to make it not sound too familiar from its parent source, that dry guitar strum working its wonders even as Perry tells the song’s subject to get down to his birthday suit as she brings out “the big balloons” (subtlety is not one of Perry’s strongest traits).
“Walking on Air”, meanwhile, gets a nice assist from Robyn’s go-to Klas Åhlund (also of the group Teddybears), the production firmly rooted in mid-90s dance pop, the drum sounds lifted from tracks like “Good Vibrations” and “I’m Too Sexy”, the vocal sample sounding like it could’ve been used on Moby’s Play, a gospel choir thrown in at the end just for good measure/no good reason at all. It makes the whole thing itself sound better as an experiment than a full-bore song, as the whole affair should be more fun than it ends up being — but it’s still effective, just as how the unabashedly Eurodisco ballad “Unconditionally” works a lot of good poses but never really hits that romantic sweet spot it’s so obviously aiming for.
Then things get weird.
Although Perry has managed some satisfying guest spots in the past, stripper anthems just never seemed like a good suit for her, and “Dark Horse” is exactly that, her sultry cooing coming off more as poser than provocateur, everything then collapsing with the inexplicable appearance of Juicy J (“She eat your heart out / Like Jeffrey Dahmer” — pure poetry there, Juicy). Her hangout routine with her friends is detailed in the odd number “This is How We Do”, where her lyrics swing from actually-clever (“suckin’ real bad at Mariah Carey-oke”) to a bit worrisome (“getting’ our nails did / all Japanese-y”). Meanwhile, “International Smile” is a song that appears to be designed to allow her to call out individual cities when performing them on tour and not much else. Perry’s best songs are written with a relatable I/You idiom in place — the subjects of her character songs never feel fully fleshed out.
After that, Prism descends into ballad territory, her lyrics sometimes alluding to a relationship gone wrong, all making for ample fodder for TMZ-watchers looking for juicy Russell Brand tell-offs. There’s none to be found here, as she takes a rather apologetic tone in the lyrics (doubly so on the Deluxe Edition tracks “It Takes Two” and “Choose Your Battles”), but the most relatable, cathartic moment on the whole disc is on the mid-tempo number “Love Me”, which almost works as a response to Ne-Yo’s more-complex-than-you-think smash “Let Me love You (Until You Learn to Love Yourself)“, describing how being in a relationship is just as much about being in love with yourself just as much as it is with the other person — a wonderful sentiment that she pulls off well, smartly articulating the feeling without ever overthinking it or descending too far into melodrama (her most common error with her slower numbers).
The rest of the ballads are very much run-of-the-mill affairs, appealing and attractive but ultimately empty (“This Moment” perhaps having the best hook out of them all), and, unfortunately, all of these are examples of just how limited the scope of Perry’s writing ability is. The slower tracks eventually blur into a mid-tempo fluff when grouped together like that (much less when heard on a randomized Perry playlist), and despite some nice moments on Prism, there is no kitschy spectacle like Teenage Dream‘s “Hummingbird Heartbeat” or smart rock revisionism like One of the Boy‘s punky title track anywhere to be found — most of Prism just plays it safe, relying on tropes that worked before instead of venturing into new territory.
Perry has very much found her groove as a songwriter, but continues to give away some of her best songs to other singers (like her Kelly Clarkson co-pen “I Do Not Hook Up“), seemingly under the impression that she’s saving the best stuff for herself. Truth be told, if she keeps maintaining the way she does on Prism, that groove will turn into a rut no time flat, as there is no amount of costume or spectacle that can prevent a boring some from being anything more than a boring song.
Sadly, this Prism is full of them.