Even pop stars have to grow up eventually, and Katy Perry, now perilously close to age 30, was overdue for an evolution: Cartoonish and candy-colored, wielding a goofy, high-concept sexuality like a weapon all through her Teenage Dream era (which lasted several years, due to that album’s extraordinary legs), Perry was probably our most explicitly conventional superstar, and one of our best. The songs were great; she herself was likable, amiable and fun.
It augured well that early buzz about her third album suggested that it would be darker and edgier, coming on the tail end of her high-profile divorce from Russell Brand. Tortured opuses with titles like “Bad Photographs” were teased. In the first visual promo for her first single, she was burning the blue wig that she sported throughout Teenage Dream.
And then she called the album Prism, because she decided to “let the light in” (her words), and released a predictable, paint-by-numbers single called “Roar,” and followed it up with the release of Prism, which turns out to be a pretty dreary affair peppered with bright notes — a lot of obvious messages of self-empowerment that don’t feel anchored in anything real or true, a lot of hollow sentiment, a lot of drifting New Age self-help talk. Listening to it, it’s tempting to wonder: What happened to all those sad, angry songs, all those records of grief and pain? Why did she have to go opening all the curtains, anyway?
Prism, out today, on Capitol Records, feels less like she’s closed the door on the Teenage Dream era with any real finality, and more like she’s gently transitioning into something much more evolved and also, much less arresting. Previously, her catalogue (of singles, at least) had been split between the witty, cartoonish pop of songs like “I Kissed A Girl” and “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” and the emotional finery of songs like “Teenage Dream” (still, for my money, one of the best pop songs of the last five years) and “Part Of Me”; the songs on Prism sit somewhere in between, lacking the edge and punch of those fun radio singles but also curiously without heart. On Prism, the songs are all deftly penned, hook-driven and convincingly delivered, but there’s no urgency, no magic, no tension. It disappoints not because anything here is really bad, but because her run was so extraordinary, those songs from her first two albums so gleaming and triumphant; these songs feel like murmurs, not rallying cries of finely crafted sentiment.
“Roar” is obvious “It Gets Better”-pop, the punch of its sweet self-empowerment cheapened by the conventionality of the production — no matter how killer that hook might be, it’s too cynical to feel truly triumphant. “Legendary Lovers” might have the catchiest refrain on the album (surely I can’t be the only one praying that the Lotus and “Aura” references in the first verse are closet shade directed at Christina Aguilera and Lady Gaga, respectively), but while the literary allusions should make the song more distinctive, it still doesn’t feel like a surprise. “Birthday” is a sparkly, goofy delight, and the early ’90s Eurohouse of “Walking On Air” is pleasurable; along with the glistening “International Smile,” they form a sort of trifecta of light, effervescent dance-pop that Perry might have done well to open up further on this album, since that sound suits her well.
But while “Unconditionally” is a solid ballad, it’s too turgid to be really emotionally gratifying, and the weird trap-lite of “Dark Horse” never quite coalesces; the celebratory “This Is How We Do” feels like a lost Ke$ha track without any real bite. “Ghost” was my favorite song when I heard this record in a listening session a few months back — the stomping beat evokes “Teenage Dream,” in a less effective way — but the verse lyrics (“You sent a text”) are too cringe-inducing to give the song much credibility. “Love Me” has a pleasant, ambient thrust, like an Imogen Heap song, but “This Moment” sounds like a scrapped demo, and after all the buzz over the Sia-penned “Double Rainbow,” it turns out to be more of a whimper than a roar. It’s curiously tepid even as its hook lodges itself in your brain.
The spare “By The Grace Of God” sees Perry reuniting with her One Of The Boys producer Greg Wells; even though it’s the most sonically conventional thing here, it’s also the most emotionally gripping, as Perry describes a flirtation with suicide and the journey back up. It feels like if Perry’d had her way, the whole album would have been songs like this — closet Christian contemporary music, songs with a capital-M Message. The deluxe edition tracks are hit-and-miss, too: “Spiritual” is great, like mid-90s radio trip-hop (Portishead, maybe), but “It Takes Two” is interminably dull, and “Choose Your Battles” never comes together, either.
It’s a frustrating listen in so many ways. The songs are impeccably crafted — the production is clear, diverse and sharp, and the hooks are razor keen. Her voice, too, sounds more open, husky and beautiful here than ever before; there’s a texture to those notes that’s gorgeously airy. And yet, Prism feels oddly soulless and strangely insubstantial, an album where the artist felt there was precious little to say. Her fans will be satisfied, of course, and “Roar” has already given her another No. 1 hit, but Prism feels like a step forward into something regressive, with its transcendental messaging and New Age posturing never quite uniting to say anything at all. It’s an old cliche that great art comes from great pain, and I don’t know what kind of art comes out of self-respect, romantic satisfaction and serenity, but it probably sounds something like Prism — and that’s not very interesting at all.
The Best Song Wasn’t The Single: “Birthday” is an obvious single choice, and it should do well for her.
Full Disclosure: This is the second album this month (after Miley Cyrus‘ Bangerz) that I wanted desperately to love; I’ve been following Perry’s career for the better part of a decade, Teenage Dream is one of my favorite pop records and I love her voice and her sound. My hopes were high. But this one just doesn’t do it. Sorry.
Idolator Score: 2.5/5
— Sam Lansky