Katy Perry’s ‘Witness’: Album Review
Years from now, pop historians will look back on Katy Perry’s Witness era and wonder what the hell happened. It started uneventfully enough. The diva kicked things off with catchy, reggae-tinged bop “Chained To The Rhythm” and promised to usher in an age of woke-pop. That was met with a certain amount of eye-rolling, but the song was a hit and everything seemed to be going as planned. But then she randomly cut off her hair and relaunched as a yoga-practicing ’90s house enthusiast and the tide turned against her.
Not only that, but Katy’s Witness campaign was suddenly plagued by the pop equivalent of fake news. There have been smear campaigns on social media and inflammatory reports from news outlets that should know better. And then there are 1676 (mostly) negative reviews that surfaced on iTunes — before the album was even released. Sadly, this is not a unique event in the volatile world of pop. Madonna, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera have all gone through it and come out the other side. Katy will too.
The main, legitimate criticism leveled at Witness is that it lacks introspection or maturity. While it’s true that tracks like “Bon Appetit” and “Swish Swish” don’t offer a lot of insight into the human condition, Katy has already released an album that does. It’s called Prism and the content you’re looking for begins at track 9 and extends all the way through to track 16. Those songs detail the various crises that arise around your return of saturn, from break-ups to spiritual awakenings.
Witness, on the other hand, is a sprawling exploration of club sub-genres that could just as easily soundtrack a party as a meditation session. What caused the massive shift in the superstar’s sound? It could have something to do with a new batch of collaborators. Dr Luke left the picture for obvious reasons, while Bonnie McKee, the songwriter behind most of Katy’s chart-toppers, is curiously absent. That leaves Max Martin as the remaining member of the Dream Team and he is the MVP of Witness, crafting the album’s most commercial bops.
Let’s start with the title track. “Witness” is a song with an unusually long history. A demo of the banger first leaked over a year ago, but it has been completely overhauled since then to fit the album’s sleek club sound. From the fluttery house keys to the loose gospel overtones, this should have been the lead single instead of “Chained To The Rhythm.” The fact that it hasn’t been rolled out as a single by now should cost someone their job. I even love the whistle outro.
The legendary Swede then switches gears and takes the album in a slightly more modern direction. “Hey Hey Hey” is a throwback to late ’00s electro-pop. (I guess that counts as retro these days?) It reminds me of Britney Spears’ Femme Fatale era, obviously a big compliment, with its bold blend of pop melodies and punchy electronica. It just has a little more edge and boasts quintessentially Katy lyrics. Like when she describes herself as “Marilyn Monroe in a monster truck.” It’s the first of seven songs co-written by BFF and “Dark Horse” co-writer Sarah Hudson, and one of the best.
Max makes it three from three with “Roulette.” After hopping forward a decade on “Hey Hey Hey,” the tracks takes us back to the ’90s. Only this time, we make a detour via Europe. This is La Bouche meets Snap! with a splash of Corona. It boasts sinister synths, a sugary sweet bridge and a massive chorus. It boldly revisits the ’90s without sounding like a museum piece. Ferras, who remains the only artist signed to Katy’s record label, comes through with his first of four co-writes.
Katy begins her experimentation with other producers on “Swish Swish.” And Duke Dumont shows out with one of the slickest beats of 2017. It still comes off as a little sloppy, however. The lyrics are just a little off (swapping “bitch” for “bish” would eliminate the cringe factor) and Nicki Minaj’s verse completely hijacks the song. I will absolutely bop to this whenever it comes on, but if you’re going to war, it pays to have everything just right.
One of the revelations on Witness is the contribution of Australian DJ Hayden James, who scored a worldwide hit in 2015 with the slinky “Something About You.” “Deja Vu” has a similar throwback, loungey vibe. It’s a more of a mood-setter than an obvious single, but it adds a soft and sultry layer to the album. Another standout is “Power,” an alt-leaning electro-opus produced by Jack Garratt. “You can’t clip my wings, can’t wilt my flowers,” Katy howls over distorted synths. “Stole my time but I’ll make up the hours ’cause I’m a goddess and you know it.” I love how radically different this is for the 32-year-old and hope her fans are willing to go along for the ride.
Katy then takes us to a vape shop in Silverlake on new age bop “Mind Maze,” which is not a song about a weed varietal. But it will sound mind-altering when your edible kicks in. A spacey collaboration with Purity Ring (Colin Roddick produced it, Meagan James is listed as a co-writer), this is the closest the singer has ever come to sounding like Bjork. Depending on where you stand, “Mind Maze” is either the point where Witness jumps the shark or hits the bullseye. Just when you think the album is about to plunge into a sonic K-hole, the pop star dials it back a notch.
Produced by Ali Payami, “Miss You More” is the kind of brutally honest anthem that Katy isn’t given enough credit for (think “Ghost” and “By The Grace Of God”). “Saw your picture on accident, your face has changed,” she sings to an ex on the relatable electro-ballad. “I miss you more than I loved you, I do. I miss you more than I loved you, I wonder what we could have been.” It’s a dagger to the heart and the album’s emotional core.
Katy picks up this thread again on “Save As Draft.” Produced by Elof Loelv and co-written by Noonie Bao, this quirky anthem finds the hitmaker reflecting on a relationship, composing emails she will never send. The icy production pops and she presents an annoyingly universal experience. It’s not all doom and gloom, however. The album closes with “Into Me You See,” a piano ballad produced by Lion composer Dustin O’Halloran. “I built a wall, so high no one could reach. A life of locks, I swallowed all the keys,” she sings. Don’t worry, there’s a happy ending. “Into me you see, into me you see. You got me wide open, now I’m ready, is this intimacy.”
Speaking of being wide open, X-rated Katy (“Bon Appetit” and “Peacock”) reappears on Mike WiLL Made It’s “Tsunami.” The production is more 2017 here and it has a welcome tinge of hip-hop minimalism. The double entendre-filled lyrics also delight. “So baby come and take a swim with me, make me ripple ’til I’m wavy,” she coos. “Don’t be scared to dive in deep and start a tsunami.” It’s fun and fresh and would have probably been a hit in another era.
That leaves us with “Bigger Than Me” and “Pendulum.” Tropical rhythms rear their ugly head on the former. This Purity Ring-assisted bop zings along nicely and the woke lyrics are definitely on brand, but it feels like filler. More memorable is “Pendulum.” Produced by Jeff Bhasker, the man behind Harry Styles’ solo album and much of Beyonce’s 4, this percussion-heavy track throbs with ’80s synths and and is haunted by the ghost of disco. It sounds like something Cameo might have served up and is well worth a listen.
Witness might be overly ambitious and is definitely a couple of songs too long, but dance-pop experiments don’t come much more enjoyable than this.