“What makes Perry such an enigmatic pop star is that she doesn’t seem to try so hard, even when it’s clear she is.”
— Steven J. Horowitz, Billboard, 12 June 2017
“LOL at all your limits”
— Katy Perry, “Hey Hey Hey”
Close your eyes for a second. Yes, you’re reading an album review, but let’s indulge. Close your eyes and think of the phrase “Katy Perry”. What do you see?
Whether you find Perry’s defiantly mainstream brand of color-coated anthem-pop fascinating or terrible is beside the point; you still have a very clear vision of what at a Katy Perry is. She’s the girl next door and also a cunning business magnate, these two concepts going hand in hand as she very much knows how to market her brand of party-affected empowerment anthems the world over. The churning “I Kissed a Girl”, her triumphant announcement of a debut single, flirted with the risqué in a way that was simultaneously taboo and yet wholly accessible. But it was the bouncy tell-off “Hot n Cold” that actually solidified Perry’s status as a hitmaker, that same bubbly, flirty persona soon perfected on 2010’s Teenage Dream, leading her to hit tours, #1 singles by the bushel, and a permanent place in the pop-diva firmament. Yes, even then, love or hate her, hot or cold, you could close your eyes, think of Katy Perry, and know exactly what who she was and what she was selling.
By the time you’ve read this review, you’ve probably read more than a few articles indicating that for the first time in her professional career, Perry was in an odd predicament promoting Witness, her new true-blue pop effort. It seemed that no matter how much she tried, she just couldn’t capture the pop zeitgeist as easily as she was once able to: her singles flopped, her public appearances were bizarre and off-putting, and she mentioned the truly obnoxious beef shared between herself and Taylor Swift no less than six times during Witness‘ promotional cycle, to say nothing of her 96-hour Truman Show-indebted live stream of her in a house with dinner parties and celebrity stop-ins following the album’s release. At times it was honest and revealing, occasionally it was fun, but mostly it was the cap to a series of bizarre stunts used to promote her latest LP.
Yet all of this PR ephemera and decorative gossip frosting belie a very simple question: what is Perry trying to say with Witness? Although she made numerous statements following Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the 2016 U.S. presidential election that she wanted to make something akin to “empowerment pop” (embodied by the very confused pseudo-political statements in rambling lead single “Chained to the Rhythm”), Witness instead seems to drawn its sonic blueprint from her 2013 chart entry “Unconditionally”, which she stated was her favorite song off of 2013’s Prism. Big, broad, and largely driven by synths and piano, “Unconditionally” proved to be fairly rote if not passable fare from the Katy Perry song factory, strong in its romantic intent but lacking anything that made it distinguishable from any insert-here pop starlet.
Opening with the title track, Witness specifically avoids horns, sawing string sections, and other colored textures in its pursuit for profundity, pushing the synths front and center as it aims for an awkward middle ground between catchy dance beats and the singer-songwriter saccharine. “Hey Hey Hey” flickers EDM strobe filters across Perry’s very distinct imagery, where she refers to herself as “Marilyn Monroe in a monster truck” before “karate chopping all the clichés and norms”. If this sounds a bit incongruous, that’s because it is, with Perry trying too hard to be lyrically exuberant despite the fact that beat here indeed does leave her couplets chained to the rhythm.
From there on out, Perry and her team aims for a grab-bag of sounds both retro and contemporary, as the melody lines of “Roulette” are tuned peculiarly close to Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”. “Tsunami” shares a lush sonic universe with indie-synth luminaries like Tory y Moi, and closing piano ballad “Into Me You See” comes off as one of those dry piano ballads by Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor, which is fitting given it was co-written and produced by Hot Chip. “I built a wall so high / No one could reach,” she sighs. “A life of locks / I swallowed all the keys.” While it’s easy to nitpick the lyrics, some rhymes still come off as empty gestures, the words being delivered in earnest even if they don’t make a lick of logic. “I was a ship floating aimlessly / So camouflage was my own worst enemy,” she continues, before asking at the end of the chorus “Is this intimacy?”, to which the answer is no. There is nothing intimate about this unless one is to find intimacy in confusion.
Witness biggest sin, however, is that even with all of her collaborations and ’80s/’90s dancepop callbacks, Perry has lost what makes her so distinct. Perry interpolates trends into her sound but never fully commits, each new mid-tempo piano number pulling her farther and farther from her established persona which, pros and cons aside, was at least capable of delivering memorable, talked about bits of pop iconography. As her 2015 Super Bowl Half Time show proved, a little bit of spectacle can go a long way towards selling even the most basic of concepts, and without that large-scale performance aesthetic to back up her ideas, Witness‘ songs simply falter in the glare of the spotlight.
Just like the fan group for any major artist, Katycats may think they want a sequel to Teenage Dream or Prism, but the truth is that you want your favorite artist to move forward, to challenge themselves, to try something new. With Witness, the sleek production and rigid sonic textures end up doing more harm than good, vacuum-sealing her voice and most of her personality into dry, readily-forgettable numbers. When she shouts “‘cos I’m a goddess and you know it / Some respect, you better show it” during the meandering “Power”, there is no buildup or emphasis to this empty declaration — just an expectation that it will be followed. Perry runs into this issue multiple times throughout the disc, surrounding herself with dry electronic flutters while hoping the lyrics will do the heavy lifting. She integrates the genuinely intriguing phrase “Am I a car on fire?” into the chorus of the sleepwalking “Mind Maze”, but after four minutes of floating, lifeless synth pads and key stabs ripped right out of a far more interesting Planet Mu release, one would be hard-pressed to describe what the song is even about afterwards.
How thrilling is it, then, that Witness‘ penultimate number is a charming, bright little bite of sunshine called “Pendulum”, with its Stephen Schwartz-styled Broadway uplift, full backing choir, and refreshingly uncluttered arrangements giving a breath of optimism into what is otherwise a very dry, mechanical album of bland introversion. It’s so easily the best song on Witness that one wonders what else Perry is hoarding in the stated 40 songs she claims to have written during these sessions. This one bit of genuine, unforced, feel-good songwriting helps pull the rest of Witness into stark light: a little bit of optimism goes a long way towards grounding the rest of Perry’s dire, curious navel-gazing, and Witness could’ve used a lot more of it.
So who’s going to bear Witness? The listeners, of course, ‘cos this album, unfortunately, proves to be one hell of a burden.