opinion by SAMUEL TOLZMANN
“My music is about to get real fucking dark…. I’ll be shoegazing. You’ll never see my face because my hair is in my face.” That’s Katy Perry speaking to Kristin Wiig in Interview earlier this year. It’s a joke, of course; as if the suits at Capitol would ever permit Perry to make music that could be described that way. Palette-wise, Perry’s professional brand has always been about pastels and tame neons, and even the “goth”(ish) video for “Wide Awake” had her donning a bright purple wig. Still, you have to wonder about that shoegaze reference. Shoegaze got its name from the posture of its performers, who had to press so many guitar pedals they never looked up during shows, something Katy Perry seems to know. I mean, there are probably actual shoegaze revivalists who don’t know that’s why shoegaze is called shoegaze. In an interview with L’Uomo Vogue, Perry confirmed sans expletive that Prism, her fourth LP, would indeed have a “darker” sound, reflecting her recent divorce and personal troubles. And then you remember how Katy Perry had Robyn for an opening act on her 2011 U.S. tour. Hey, Teenage Dream came out not too long after Teen Dream. Wait. Is Katy Perry…cool? A little, maybe? Have the stars aligned? Is Prism poised to become a scene-uniting reverse-crossover smash? Nope. Gotcha! This is Katy Perry we’re talking about. Prism is a bit more minor-key than its highly successful predecessor Teenage Dream, and “Dark Horse” has a kind of G-rated Crystal Castles III thing going on, but that’s all. It only takes one glance at the cover art, let alone a cursory listen to even a few of the tracks here, to recognize that, hair in face or not, Prism is more of the same squeaky-clean Top 40 pop with a Euroclub sheen.
…Except, not quite. Make no mistake, Prism is unsatisfying, cheesy, and very poorly written – but it has to be one of the best-produced mediocre pop albums in a while. It’s a tepid collection that can be easily divided into two predictable categories, “bangers” and “wailers,” but a robust team of gifted producers ensures that Prism is a fairly engaging listen almost in spite of itself. Listeners who pay attention to sonic trappings will find a lot to love here, even if it isn’t the songs: nary a track goes by without at least one wasted gem of an idea. For example, there’s a muted 8-bit run on the chorus of “This Is How We Do” that deserves its own song; perhaps it could be paired with the Daft Punk “Digital Love”-aping comedown of “International Smile”? Elsewhere, moody, stuttering vocal samples lurk in around every corner. Prism feels first and foremost like a producers’ playground, and sometimes that’s not for the best – the country-inflected bombast of “Legendary Lovers” is inexplicably disrupted by a Timbaland-eque percussion breakdown that sounds airlifted in from a completely different song, while the ‘90s gay club vibe of “Walking On Air” is just a plain old bad idea – there needs to be a moratorium on gospel choirs in pop songs – but at least it means that the album is rarely truly dull. The tracks are often wildly complex but usually they’re also masterfully balanced, coming off as feather-light despite the teeming activity; the sheer amount of stimuli will wow you, but the songs themselves never get drowned out no matter how many plates are spinning.
However, for all this to be worth it the songs have to be able to shoulder the load, and ultimately they fail to do that. Not only do 90% of the hooks evaporate on impact, the lyrics are abominable to the point of distraction. The writers – including Perry on most tracks, although who knows what that really means – seem steered by a misguided desire to project a populist, girl-next-door image, meaning that the words are frustratingly vague and generalized yet peppered with awkward non-sequiturs like “fresh as a daisy” and “life is one big fast treadmill,” lines that sound out of place in every setting. Most of her hits to date have been lightweight slices of carefree pop, but the contenders from Prism are so insipid they actually make the singer look stupid – in particular, someone should probably be fired for greenlighting “Birthday,” a debacle whose charmingly retro production can’t salvage a cringe-worthy line like, “Get you in your birthday suit, here come the big, big balloons!” On the more serious fare, the abundance of lyrical clichés makes it difficult for Perry to sell the emotions, and it doesn’t help that she isn’t an especially gifted singer whose strength aren’t served well by the songs. Perry’s at her best when her voice breaks vulnerably at emotionally opportune moments (see: almost every single line of “Teenage Dream,” as perfect a pairing of singer and material as you’ll hear in contemporary pop) or when she’s sassily bellowing with little regard for pitch (like on Prism’s lead single, “Roar”), but mostly this album finds her struggling to wring pathos from flat, grating vocal takes or fading into the background as soon as she enters falsetto, even though her only volume setting seems to be “11.” She doesn’t make much of an impression as a performer, and since the songs themselves are boring, it’s inevitable that our attention shift to the consistently more engaging production even though it’s Perry’s name and face on the album cover.
Prism does have two bright moments of success when everything comes together and we get a glimpse of the better-written album that could have been. First is opener “Roar,” a song that’s not very clever but man, is it empowering! More importantly, if you listen past the titanic, chest-beating refrain you’ll hear examples of the first-rate production decisions that characterize all of Prism: the energizing push-pull interplay between the perky piano and the dragging bass line; the way the processed guitars ring out perfectly under the titular roar; that lovely descending synth-and-glockenspiel pas-de-deux in the final moments…. These things and more all unite and combust like glittery fireworks when applied to a melodically secure song that really gives Perry something to work with (“Roar” is the only point on Prism when she sounds like she’s actually enjoying herself, and it’s the first four minutes).
Meanwhile, on the mostly lackluster Side B, there’s another empowerment anthem, “Love Me,” that’s the polar opposite of “Roar” in nearly every other way. Produced by well-known pop mastermind Bloodshy, it’s got a questionable title and silly lyrics but it manages to transcend those issues anyway. Where “Roar” stomps and brays, “Love Me” tiptoes and murmurs. It’s an understated, crystal-clear dance-pop track constructed around nimble piano, swirling synths, and a driving but unobtrusive club beat. Like “Roar,” it’s filled with details that make every twist and turn refreshing: pitch-shifted backing vocals, the handclaps on the bridge, those breaks of sustained left-hand piano just before each refrain. In the middle of it all, Perry isn’t roaring at all but instead delivering the record’s only subdued vocal, wisely deigning to keep things modest even when the song escalates to the point where it sounds like sun breaking through storm clouds. So much of big-budget pop right now motivates listeners to dance by bludgeoning them into submission, but when “Love Me” really takes off around the halfway point, it feels like a warm invitation. It’s nowhere near as good as, say, Annie’s “Heartbeat,” but it shares similar musical priorities, and in 2013 that’s a rare thing on an album by an artist as charts-focused as this one. On “Roar,” Perry demands our attention using tried-and-true techniques, but on “Love Me,” she actually earns it. The song’s central complaint is, “I lost my own identity,” but it’s the only track here that stands out from the crowd in a positive, interesting, and meaningful way. It’s not the “darker” Perry one might be hoping for on Prism in light of its press materials, but it’s actually kind of marvelous, and that’s definitely a start. [C-]