Friday, October 18, 2013

album review: 'prism' by katy perry

You know, it's kind of terrifying how successful Katy Perry has been. I mean, I think I might be one of the few people who remember her first album when she still called herself Katy Hudson and thought her music had the slightest iota of depth (it was Christian rock, so it didn't). She took a good seven year break between that amateurish effort and her follow-up, where she deposited any pretensions towards depth and went full-on pop diva. And, unsurprisingly, she was incredibly successful at it, mostly thanks to her backing producer Dr. Luke, who has been bankrolling his career off Katy Perry's stream of #1 hits, particularly off of her third album Teenage Dream.

And all of this is despite the fact that Katy Perry really isn't that good of a singer and her lyrics have the personality of a damp piece of oversexed cardboard. Unlike acts like Lady Gaga (who has legitimate talent and I'll be dealing with later this month) or Ke$ha, every bit of production and autotune added to Katy Perry only seems to take away from her as an artistic personality instead of enhancing any personality that is there. The scary thing is that maybe that's for the best, because having seen Katy Perry: Part of Me and having seen the closest thing to the 'real' Katy Perry, we see a vapid woman with a perilous grasp on her emotions and stability in a way that becomes genuinely worrisome as she's exploited by the music industry and her hellish touring schedule. It's probably why 'Wide Awake' is my 'favourite' Katy Perry song: it's deceptively real and shows elements of raw emotion that most other Katy Perry songs are careful to erase. That's arguably my biggest problem with Katy Perry, and that is so much of her material feels empty, a shell composed of plastic, sex appeal, and a forced smile maximized for demographic appeal. Say what you will about Ke$ha's occasional bouts of obnoxiousness or crazy ideas, at least they come from some place real.

But perhaps that might change with Prism, her newest album, an album inspired by 'letting the light in' and Katy Perry 'really working on herself'. I can barely say those sentences aloud without my eyes rolling - Katy Perry, the walking advertisement for catchy, shamelessly commercial pop music opting to create a more personal album? It was enough to catch my... well, let's call it skepticism instead of interest, so I picked up Prism and prepared myself for the worst. Did I get it?


Ugh. Well, while I wouldn't say this album is terrible, Katy Perry's Prism is decidedly mediocre and pretty much exactly what I was expecting from her. Not only is it a step down from Teenage Dream, it also reflects a depressing shift in artistic direction for Katy Perry away from the shallow catchiness of which she was at least proficient. No, this album is trying way harder than it should to be spiritual and deep, and dear God, does it fail big time.

So let's start with Katy Perry herself. Now, it's obvious that she's trying, and I'll give her some credit for that, but if there was a record that proves that Katy Perry has a very limited emotional range in her voice, it's here. She has one very expressive voice that is compelling, I won't deny that, but when Miss Perry sings in that voice, it sounds like she's on the verge of tears, and it really comes across as jarring when she tries to perform love songs with that vocal style - it really makes them come across as a bit uncomfortable. And when she's not singing in that voice, she loses pretty much all of her personality, thanks to overproduction and autotune. 

And the frustrating fact is that this also extends to the instrumentation, which appears to have been cribbed from about three or four other acts wholesale and yet devoid of the hooks that normally make Dr. Luke's songs at least memorable. Everyone on the internet has already pointed out how much 'Roar' sounds like Sara Bareilles' 'Brave' (which is a much better song from a better singer-songwriter), but that's neglecting how much of this album sounds like a modernized version of early-to-mid-80s synthpop - in other words, ripping off Tegan & Sara wholesale (who have to be wondering why the hell 'Closer' didn't take off when the duo did everything right with that song). As a guy who wasn't the biggest fan of Heartthrob, I was nevertheless kind of appalled how much songs like 'Birthday', 'International Smile', and 'Love Me' sounded like direct lifts from that album with worse writing and heavier percussion. So much of this material feels like retro-disco leftovers with a bit of a modern twist, and the startling thing is that that is the better tracks on this album - hell, I actually kind of liked 'This Moment' until I realized half the song was cribbed from Queen's 'Radio Gaga'! And incidentally, while I do think it was a good idea to add some heavier drums to the mix and some guitar swell in the background, I couldn't help but feel that all the power instrumentation was doing was highlighting how little charisma and presence that Katy Perry brings on this record. 

So what about the lyrics and theme - I mean, if they were going for 'deeper' material, this is where it'd manifest itself, right? Well, here's the thing: the songwriting on this album is kind of analogous to Katy Perry herself, in that it's trying way too hard to be deep and meaningful and has absolutely nothing besides shallow platitudes to say on anything. Take 'Roar' for instance, which takes a grab-bag of inspirational cliches and dumps them into a blender, thus not giving it any impact whatsoever. In fact, lack of impact could be considered a bigger problem with the album as a whole - from love to heartbreak, none of these songs really hit me with anything distinctive or potent, and most often my emotions when listening to this album were disinterest or confusion at the bizarre lyrics that seem to raise far more questions than they answer. Take 'Legendary Lovers', a song that is rife with Indian and Middle-Eastern ideas - but they're just ideas, none of them are realized or even understood with appropriate context. And when Katy Perry references real legendary lovers, she mentions Cleopatra and Juliet - you know, Miss Perry, both of those 'romances' ended with the woman in question killing herself, I'm not sure that's the legend you're looking for!

And if it was just those two songs that had bizarre or badly chosen lyrics, it'd be understandable, but this is all over the album, most often in the form of badly chosen sexual double entendres. Kind of unsurprisingly, Katy Perry spends more of the album talking about love and sex than approaching any sort of spirituality, but here the odd lyrics don't even make the songs unique, just tiresome. And yet somehow, the bad songs still manage to stick out, the nadir being 'Dark Horse' (which features a really grating synth and a muddled empowerment message) and 'This Is How We Do', which takes the accusations thrown at 'Last Friday Night' for actively encouraging irresponsible behaviour and ramps it up to eleven - classy! Yes, Miss Perry, make your shout-out to kids buying bottle service with their rent money, because that isn't a sign of a serious problem whatsoever! Oh wait, Miss Perry, you're just going to get your nails done 'japanese-y'. Yeah, that's an actual lyric in that song, but really, despite being kind of racist, it was just another characteristic of the sloppy, amateurish technical songwriting, which is nowhere near interesting.

Oh, and Juicy J contributes a guest verse to 'Dark Horse'. That brief sentence is about all of the attention he deserves. Seriously, dude, between that and the verse you dropped on will.i.am's atrocious album earlier this year, you need to go back to Three Six Mafia and fast.

Look, ultimately Prism by Katy Perry is a wash and it really doesn't warrant much attention in the slightest. And in a year where so many female pop stars dropped albums... well, Natalia Kills was better, Colette Carr was better, Ariana Grande was better, Miley Cyrus was better - hell, I'd argue Jessie J, who many have unfairly branded as the Katy Perry rip-off, she's better than what Miss Perry brings to the table here! It's shallow, vapid, and shockingly bland, especially considering Dr. Luke is normally a lot better than this. And while Miss Perry might think this material is deep, well, that's just an indication of the limited personality and depth that she brings to the table. If my review has, for some ungodly reason, convinced you that this album needs to be a part of your life, I strongly advise you go for the deluxe edition - it has 'It Takes Two' and 'Choose Your Battles', which along with 'Love Me' are the better songs on this album. But otherwise, I advise you skip Prism, and it gets a 5/10 from me. 

And as for Katy Perry - go back to making shallow dance jams - they might have been dumb and plastic, but at least they were catchy.

1 comment:

  1. I actually liked, not loved, Katy's first album and thought it had some stand-out tracks. I expected Teenage Dream to be a big improvement but was hugely disappointed. Prism is just a disaster. At least TD had a few really good songs. But the Prism lyrics are embarrassing and it's obvious that she's no longer in touch with her feelings. Her songs sound like an attempt to write emotional or meaningful songs rather than anything sincere. I can't believe there was a time I thought Katy would become a great artist and Kesha would be an eternal joke. With Warrior and Deconstructed, Kesha is proving she's the great and true artist with an actual vision for her albums. Katy seems heavily dependent on her producers and only seems to care about creating instant but forgettable hits. Sadly, it's the puppet rather than the artist who's getting most of the chart and sales success.

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