Friday, October 18, 2013

Self-help Quotes, Bubblegum and the Big Leagues: Katy Perry Prism Review

Banal yet brilliant, cutting yet corporate, Katy Perry occupies a strange place in the pop sphere. 2010's Teenage Dream was only her second album but it turned her into a chart juggernaut. From California Gurls through to Firework and then two huge hits from a reissue, Perry ended up with 6 number ones on the US' Billboard Hot 100, the kind of staggering feat that comes from a heady mix of big tunes, big marketing and a star relentlessly out to up their pop game.

After turning herself into a cartoon character pop star who also played huge parts of her personal life out in public (once herself and Russell Brand took to every second red-carpet it was obvious this was no Beyoncé/Jay-Z affair) and turning all that into a somewhat banal documentary movie (more on that here). By the half-way point of 2012 you'd be forgiven for thinking Perry might disappear for a large chunk of time. But it seems that the success she'd earned would have her coming back sooner than you'd think.

Having gotten back to work at the end of last year, the summer saw Katy Perry line up the opening gambit for third album Prism. From a golden truck driving around the US displaying the album title to moody promo videos of Katy burning the blue wig that made California Gurls a bubblegum statement, it all seemed a bit more grown up.

Once lead single Roar rolled around it was obvious that Perry was more than happy to keep things light. It was something of a let-down in how it didn't sound as dark or gloomy as you'd expect. Roar is by the number empowerment pop and it's self-help book inspired lyrics definitely hint at the level of depth (i.e. not much) she goes for elsewhere on Prism.

It opens the album and foreshadows where the second half of the album goes with it's stab at being personal but it's DNA is radio ready pop. It's by the numbers but fizzy and listenable.
Legendary Lovers jumps into a slightly weirder place, it's a big bold hook scattered across an would-be indie-rock thump and some Bhangra touches. It's melodramatic and a tad-more grown up than the kind of affair that summed up most of Teenage Dream. The mood is lifted into something more bubblegum and quintessentially Katy on Birthday. The carefree cousin to 90s Mariah, it's all sun-kissed odes to flirty fun and boasts an 80s sounding Prince-lite guitar riff. Walking On Air is a 90s dance throwback with Robin S and CeCe Peniston vibes sliding all over the place. It's an album highlight and it seems odd that they let this out as an early "buzz" single when it could be a hit in it's own right. 

Second single Unconditionally follows and while it doesn't feel as trite as Roar, it's would-be deep posturing on everlasting love is hard to take seriously. It's an effective weepy number though and could be the "serious ballad" moment she'll need to flog albums for Christmas. 

After that we slide into a final blast of slick, danceable pop. Dark Horse pairs a trap beat with some R&B pop gloom and it's a risk that pays off. Moody and brilliant, with a slowly rising chorus, it's one of the few times she joins up a mature sound with something radio ready. This Is How We Do may seem like a by the numbers party jam but it's Justice does Last Friday Night electro pop production and eye for detail are kind of irresistible. International Smile, an ode to Perry's DJ pal Mia Moretti, is all Daft Punk vocoder voices and bouncy dance pop fun. It's light as a feather but perfectly judged, a reminder that Perry's real knack isn't empowerment anthems but infusing pure pop with wit and charm.

Ghost swings the album into it's second half of introspective ballads. It's got a nice synth pull and is pleasant but it sets a tone of songs that are more forgettable than they are emotionally charged. Love Me ropes in Bloodshy of Bloodshy and Avant and it's sweet and honest, a stirring mid-tempo about letting your guard down. This Moment takes a similar method of electro-pop pulses but layers too many MOR pop-rock pianos and pounding drums. It's like Celine Dion trying to have an Alanis moment and as insincere as that suggests.

Double Rainbow, co-written with Sia, does a better job of pulling some real emotion out of Perry's voice. It's simple with enough atmosphere to stop it feeling sparse but it's not cluttered with too much radio baiting noise. It's like a moody older sister to Wide Awake and has a sense of melancholy that draws you in.

By The Grace of God has already attracted attention after it's debut at Perry's iTunes Festival show. The personal lyrics talk about struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts after the whirl of her divorce. It's raw and honest and even though it threatens to fly into the mawkish it works, with Perry letting the controlled side of her public persona slide somewhat.

The deluxe edition is being sold as the main version of the album to go for, unusual for these kinds of releases, so it's interesting to note how they fit the tone of the second half of the album.

Spiritual is somewhat duff lyrically, a weird would-be trip-hop beat shuffling underneath it and moves at a better clip than most of the "deep" stuff on the rest of the album. It Takes Two sees Emeli Sandé pop in on co-writing duties and it's galloping riff and piano stabs on the chorus certainly are her trademark. It's forgettable and certainly suggests that Perry's emoting isn't as captivating as it could be. Choose Your Battles goes for high drama with it's references to "hurt locker love" but little about this one sticks and it's a shame to end on such a dud. 

Prism is an uneven listen, it's swing into would-be deep balladry on the second half only showing how much Katy Perry has left to do as a popstar who can combine her own quick wit (evident in interviews) into something that makes for less mawkish sentiment and more sharply created pure pop. 

After so many big singles from the last album Perry is now seen as the biggest name in female pop, with Lady Gaga deemed too theatrical and Rihanna's scantily clad antics scaring off the parents who'll happily buy Prism in their droves for their kids this Christmas. 

There's nothing wrong with being successful or offering up radio ready tunes but Perry seems eager to experiment and then take three steps back at every juncture and Prism is no exception. The high points show her obvious talent but too much of it is the kind of slightly forgettable carry on that typifies the worst of her output. An occasionally brilliant but overall disappointing piece of pop. 

Prism is out now in Ireland, arrives in the UK on Monday and the US on Tuesday.

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