As her 2010 sophomore album Teenage Dream was continually assaulting the charts with subsequent hits, Katy Perry dropped hints regarding what her follow-up would sound like. After her divorce with comedian Russell Brand in 2012, it seemed the post-marital angst was about to seep its way into her music when she proclaimed: "My music is about to get real fucking dark. I'll be shoegazing."
Whereas Perry meant that she would just literally be looking at the ground with her hair in her face, certain milieus jokingly took it as the California Gurl going My Bloody Valentine on us. But jokes aside, Teenage Dream's "Circle the Drain" was a fairly dark diatribe against a drug-addicted ex-lover. So I myself, wasn't expecting a genre-shift rather than something along the lines of Rihanna's Rated R in terms of thematic subjects.
Alas, the first single presented to us was entitled "Roar" and ended up being a particularly vibrant piece. Pianos plink along, synths waver up and down, and Katy spews time-tested clichés ("I stood for nothing, so I feel for everything", "I got the eye of the tiger") about overcoming adversity. If anything, it had more of the upbeat indie pop vibe of Stepdad than something out of Chapterhouse's more-accessible material. And Prism, her third album, doesn't seem like much of an evolution as it is a lateral shift. For the album, established pop smash curators like Max Martin and Dr. Luke are enlisted for writing and production to make appealing, catchy tunes like the second single "Unconditionally" or the discotheque-esque "Birthday" and its tongue-in-cheek, barely double entendres: "Let me get you in your birthday suit, it's time to bring out the big balloons"-- also, see "Peacock" for roughly the same thing but used so gratuitously that the song is actually cringingly entertaining.
At times we get songs we're pretty sure we've heard before. "This Is How We Do" straddles somewhere along the line between Ke$ha's sing-talk/rapping and "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)" before the song thankfully fades out until Katy demands we bring the beat back for like, 20 seconds--which might be useful for remix segue purposes but otherwise forces us to sit through more of a song that wasn't interesting in the first place. "This Moment" is a live-for-today instruction manual that could have been written for any other contemporary pop singer and is one of the most forgettable tracks in the album.
Other times the formula works perfectly. "International Smile" is a grooving piece with a strong hook about a globe-hopper who's: "A little bit of Yoko and...a little bit of oh no." The sound is slightly reminiscent of early Kylie Minogue and a vocoder solo towards the end that takes the song to new heights. "Ghost" is a bittersweet dance track that seems to directly address Perry's feelings regarding her marriage's end: From what she felt like an abrupt ending ("It's like the wind changed your mind") and coping with the remnants of a broken relationship ("It's out of sight, like you were never alive") to gaining insight afterwards and driving the ghost metaphor to home ("Rest in peace I'll see you on the other side"). However, without context, it all just reads like a standard break-up song: Perry can make breathy sighs and caterwaul at all the proper parts, but--be it too much studio sheen, over-rehearsal, or the singer's inability to express rawness--the emotional investment is notably absent.
Overall, though, Prism does take some stabs at different styles, with mixed results. "Walking on Air" is a 90s house-inspired, CeCe Peniston-aiming smash with an alluring bridge and a choir-filled climax. It's easy to wonder how the song would do with a more powerful vocalist but regardless it's total dance-pop euphoria and stands as the best track of the album. One of the most interesting tracks is "Legendary Lovers", which seems to ride the success of Selena Gomez's "Come & Get It" with its lush Bhanga-influenced beats, stomping chorus, and layered instruments--but the lyrics present a disconcerting issue as the song trivialises Hindu culture, comparing lovers to mantras and auras, and reducing the concept of Chakra to a mystical whisper mid-instrumental - essentially treating a religion like a 'exotic' fashion accessory. Should this ever become a single, I'll be sure to expect an offensive, white-washed video to come in hand. And then there's "Dark Horse". Its hypnotic, trap beat is perhaps the darkest thing about Prism with mesmerizing verses to match. The chorus gallops in only for the song to then drop-out and let the beat percolate until resuming to a passable feature from Juicy J, all closing with the chorus again. But when the song's all over and we're told: "There's no going back," it really doesn't feel like we've been anywhere to begin with.
And it pretty much matches the overall sense of Prism, we don't get a colourful array of styles and personalities as much as we get a dress-up montage. And sure, pop music should be about fantasy, but everything that sounds like a Katy Perry song is competent and safe and the more adventurous material doesn't have anything to tie them together and re-enforce their strengths. Though that isn't to say Prism doesn't have its moments that are more than impressive and at least make it an entertaining listen and warrant a couple more plays. The worthwhile stuff is certainly here and there. As with the sentiment echoed in the Sia Furler penned "Double Rainbow", "One man's trash is another man's treasure."