You remember Teenage Dream, right? No, not the singular pitch-perfect exercise in sleek, radio-friendly pop-rock that topped charts worldwide. Nor am I even referring to the album of the same name. Katy Perry’s sophomore effort can only be discussed in terms of its campaign, a seemingly interminable but ultimately enjoyable stretch of twenty-six months, encompassing five Billboard number ones, a sell-out tour and the not entirely vomit-inducing documentary “Katy Perry: Part of Me”. The album itself may have been textbook example of cynical hit-chasing, but one thing the era couldn’t be accused of was a lack of conviction from Perry herself. Whether shooting cream from her breasts, attempting laughably high notes or trying to out-Gaga Gaga when even the Lady herself knew her ‘wacky’ style was becoming passé, she did it all with a knowing wink and a cheesy grin.
That this steely façade should show signs of degeneration on Perry’s third effort is one of the record’s most pleasant surprises. Make no mistake – PRISM is a purpose-built set, designed to keep Perry on top of the charts while simultaneously laying down the infrastructure to bring her back to her roots as a quasi-credible singer/songwriter. The album houses a plethora of hits, most of which breeze by with unexpectedly nuanced production from pop mob bosses Dr. Luke and Max Martin. There are inevitably a few ‘emergency button’ singles should things turn sour – “This Is How We Do” bumbles along like a Ke$ha track on valium, while “International Smile”, with its skittish guitar riff and fizzy synths, could’ve been ripped straight from Teenage Dream – but Perry’s strained, passionless delivery gives you hope that she’s over this brand of cookie-cutter pop.
True enough, she gives lead single “Roar” enough pep to help it transcend it’s perilously low ambitions, but you’d be smiling too if you managed to squeeze as many clichés into a song as she has. Regardless, the track remains a pleasant empowerment anthem, one that slots nicely into a triptych of autobiographical singles pertaining to the singer’s divorce from comedian Russell Brand (a trilogy launched with “Part of Me”, and continued with “Wide Awake”).
Thankfully, Perry isn’t afraid to mix it up. “Walking On Air” sees her dabble in 90’s house, complete with cut-glass piano and a pitched-down, Robin S.-aping vocal hook. “Legendary Lovers” flows from trap-inspired verses, to a folky, pseudo-religious bridge, to a fabulously disjointed chorus with poise and elegance. Picking up on this small diversion into trap, “Dark Horse” shows promise with slinky verses and a foreboding chorus. Synths gather and begin to gallop as Perry asks “Are you ready for / ready for / a perfect storm?”, setting the listener up for greatness, only to peace out at the last minute; leaving us with either a sinister beat that the kids can twerk to (forgivable) or a verse from Juicy J (definitely a bit of an off-the-Christmas-card-list situation).
In many ways, Perry is the perfect popstar, at least in the sense that she understands the importance of the ‘full package’. The comparative subtlety of the tracks on PRISM means they may not resonate with listeners as rapidly as those on Teenage Dream, but rest assured, she’s pretty much bound to sell the hell out of them, at least when it comes to the singles. There are only a few moments of pure euphoria (“Walking On Air”, “Birthday”), but there’s also only one dud (the Sia-penned “Double Rainbow”). Everything else is easier to admire than fall deeply in love with – but when Perry’s given space to breathe and sing from her heart, as she does on the gorgeous, piano-led closer “By The Grace of God”, and the wonderfully lush bonus track “Spiritual”, the results can be spine-tingling.