Album Review: Katy Perry’s Illuminating ‘Smile’
By conjuring a multi-layered pop album for grownups, Katy Perry pulls off an increasingly rare feat with Smile. This is pop with purpose that uplifts and inspires. Over the course of 12 bouncy bops and catchy toe-tappers, Katy takes us along on her journey of self-discovery — exploring themes like perseverance, acceptance and healing. If Witness represented the eye of a very public storm, Smile is a snapshot of the calm and serenity that comes after it.
While the tone of the album is exceedingly upbeat, Smile also addresses the bumps in the road to happiness. And they provide some of the album’s brightest moments. To my mind, there are three near-perfect pop songs on Smile and they come right at the beginning. First released in 2019, “Never Really Over” opens the album on a deceptively bittersweet note. While Zedd’s synths are shimmery and light, and the sample of Dagny’s “Love You Like That” still glistens, the earworm is essentially about being a prisoner to past mistakes.
“Cry About It Later” then picks up where “Never Really Over” left off. The slinky bop, which was co-written by Noonie Bao and Sasha Sloan, is a relatable internal monologue. “I know tomorrow, I’ll be love hungover,” Katy sings over Oscar Holter’s ’80s-evoking synths. “But I’m ready for a shameless summer.” She ultimately decides to live in the moment: “I’ll cry about it later, tonight I’m having fun.” Sometimes you just have to fake it ’til you make it — even emotionally. When you factor in the delightfully retro guitar solo, this needs to be a single.
That also applies to “Teary Eyes.” Covering similar ground as “Cry About It Later,” this dance-pop gem is a brokenhearted banger in the mold of Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own.” “Have you ever lost, lost the light in your life,” Katy sings over FRND (AKA Andrew Goldstein) and OzGo’s (Swedish producer Oscar Gorres) fluttery beats. “Have you ever left, left yourself behind.” Again, instead of moping, the new-mom strains her eyes to see the light at the end of the tunnel. “Just keep on dancing with those teary eyes,” she sings on the chorus. “Promise one day baby, they’re gonna dry.” Sonically, this is the link between Witness and Smile.
While the first three songs are extra special, the rest of the album is consistently great. Surprisingly, given the tone of the era and single choices, bangers do most of the heavy-lifting. Take “It’s Not The End Of The World.” Another FRND production, this ode to fixing your attitude evokes “Dark Horse” with its staccato verses and soaring chorus. “It’s no funeral we’re attending, actually just the beginning,” Katy promises the listener and herself. “It’s not the end of the, no, not the end of the world.” There’s even an addictive sample of Steam’s “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” (a song Bananarama made famous in the ’80s).
Hungry for the tongue-in-cheek pop of Teenage Dream and Prism? Don’t worry, Smile has that too. The dreamy “Harleys In Hawaii” is a silky, smooth pop delight, while Mama Perry dips into 2020’s hottest trend (i.e. disco) on “Champagne Problems.” Seemingly dedicated to fiancé Orlando Bloom, this celebratory bop is about finding your person. Striking a similar chord is “Tucked,” which was also produced by Johan Carlsson and John Ryan. The high-camp ditty (no, it’s not a Drag Race reference) is the album’s “Peacock” or “International Smile.” In other words, it’s wonderful nonsense.
While the tempo drops for the remainder of the project, the quality does not. The anthemic “Daisies” would have been a number one hit at any other point of Katy’s career, while “Smile” will certainly plaster one on your face. Equally uplifting is “Resilient.” Produced by Stargate and co-penned with Ferras, this melodic mid-tempo is about finding inner strength, and navigating life with humility and grace. “I know there’s gotta be rain, if I want the rainbows,” Katy recognizes. “And I know the higher I climb, the harder the wind blows.”
The closest thing to an actual ballad on Smile is “Only Love.” Produced by John DeBold, this gospel-tinged anthem is about the clarity that follows trauma. “If I had one day left to live and if the stars went out on me,” Katy muses. “I’d call my mother and tell her I’m sorry… I’d pour my heart and soul out into a letter And send it to my dad.” After all, there’s only one thing that really matters in the end and that’s “only love.” The album then closes with “What Makes A Woman,” a country-tinged tune about the divine feminine. Of which Katy is the living embodiment.
Smile might not be a single-heavy, record-breaking opus like Teenage Dream or a weird and wonderful odyssey like Witness, but it is a cohesive and palpably personal album that exudes authenticity with each shared insight. Just don’t judge Smile by the hodgepodge of singles that have sprouted up over the last two years. It all makes sense as a complete body of work. There is a little something for fans of every Katy era and enough growth, both personal and artistic, to welcome newcomers to the KatyCat litter.