Monday, June 12, 2017

album review: 'witness' by katy perry

Does anyone else think that Katy Perry is trying way too hard?

Now that's a pretty harsh statement to make about any artist, but I've been considering the adage of while a good artist pushes their artistic boundaries, a truly great artist pushes while understanding their strengths and limitations, and I'm not sure Katy Perry does. I might have issues with One Of The Boys and Teenage Dream, but they worked for shallow, frequently ridiculous and and stupid pop music - and I don't mean that to denigrate it, believe it or not. Great pop doesn't necessarily need a lot of brains if the melody, color, and charisma is there, and while I'd make the argument Perry has always had more volume and presence than actual charisma or sex appeal, looking back there are some singles I can appreciate around the turn of the decade.

Then Prism happened, and while it was one of my very early reviews in 2013, I mostly stand by it. Katy Perry was trying to split the difference between tasteless sex appeal that forced way too many double entendres, and heartfelt power ballads where she just did not have the presence or intensity to compensate for weak writing. And when she split the difference... the most we got were mid-80s inspired synthpop grooves that Tegan & Sara had already done better earlier in the year. What was disheartening about the whole affair is that Katy Perry was very plainly trying, there was effort on display, and to see her repeatedly stumble was tough to hear.

So after taking some time to collect herself, tour with Kacey Musgraves to refine her writing chops, and connect with Hillary Clinton's political campaign to attempt to add weight to increasingly hollow anthems, we have a new album from Katy Perry. And I'll be blunt: I did not expect this to be good. 'Chained To The Rhythm' has only felt more myopic and self-serving with every listen, 'Swish Swish' has nowhere close to the impact it thinks it has, and 'Bon Appetit' was staggeringly misconceived in every way - and Katy Perry is a singles artist, so if this is what she's leading with, I was genuinely worried this would suck - does it?

...you know, there's a certain ironic tragedy to this record, something that I'd be inclined to mock or feel anger towards if it didn't feel so profoundly sad. Because I remember when Katy Perry said that Prism was some of the darkest material she's ever recorded, and yet that album wouldn't hold a candle to Witness in its dour, almost anti-pop tones and atmosphere that's about the furthest thing from the pop that made her famous and for which with her collaborators showed some uncanny talent. To Katy, this is a more mature, more experimental, more truthful record, the album to break her out of a pop framework that's been trying to buck for the past five years, and again, it's clear she's trying so damn hard... and yet any sympathy I might have for that, I have to be honest as a critic. Because Witness is easily Katy Perry's worst album to date, an overlong slog that has no clear comprehension of its strengths or weaknesses, a record aiming for deeper drama and intensity to the point of slagging off the colourful pop she made in the past, unable to realize that despite her dismissal of it, it's going to be those songs that are remembered in the end.

And we have to start with Katy Perry here... and look, I'm going to recycle some of what I said four years ago when I covered Prism, namely that Katy Perry herself has never impressed me as a vocalist. She's not visceral or possessing a tremendous range - which makes her a particularly weak fit for the few writing credits from Sia, especially when she's in power ballad mold - and she's never really been able to deliver consistent sensuality, especially when you get the impression that she's not having any fun on this record. This'll become more of an issue later, but the larger lingering issue is that as a vocalist, Katy Perry still doesn't really have the technical chops, or even the intensity and personality to really compensate for it - even on songs that demand her to 'kick and scream', she doesn't bring the power. And I was actually a little startled how much autotune, filters and pitch correction still surrounds her voice on that song or 'Power' or 'Mind Maze', which does not help any desire to sound less 'pop' or polished - but again, that's probably more of a factor of Katy Perry records feeling as expensive or involved as they do. 

But what it does tend to lead to an odd airless sterility to a lot of this record, where guest stars are here for professional obligation than actually wanting to refine something special - why else is Nicki Minaj focusing more on her beef with Remy Ma with only passing references to Perry's feud with Taylor Swift, or Migos' just sounding awkward and counting time until their cheques go through on 'Bon Appetit'? Granted, the production certainly doesn't help - it's been a long time since I've heard a pop record this joyless, dour, and lacking organic color... and yes, I'm calling this a pop album, because it's not like Katy Perry's experimentation is pushing the instrumentation or production in weird or challenging or God help us fun directions! I'm loathe to bring him up - and anybody who has seen my Special Comments on Kesha would understand why - but at least when Dr. Luke was cowriting for Katy Perry there was a chance of a solid distinctive melodies that would hold our attention, whereas here? Katy Perry recruits everyone from Sia to Shellback, Max Martin to Mike Will Made It, Illangelo and DJ Mustard to Purity Ring and Hot Chip, to try and wring a distinct and interesting sound here... and yet bizarrely the entire album has a stark monochromatic feel, drenched in melancholic pianos, harsh gurgles of synth, lumbering percussion that flirts with trap and tropical progressions, and entirely too much reverb. If you get a hint of guitar, like on the title track or 'Chained To The Rhythm', its desaturated and locked to sterile percussion lines, with none of the bass grooves really having much looseness or character, or in some cases you get the overloaded drum fills of 'Power' that seem to forget a melody might actually make this song stand out! But that's the problem: unless you have a song more anchored in piano like 'Pendulum' or 'Miss You More' that sound like slow Jess Glynne rejects - in both cases with more growling synths, in the latter with a gospel swell that felt way too polished - these songs start running together fast. 

And that goes regardless if Katy Perry is trying to be introspective or 'woke' in the clumsiest ways possible... so yeah, lyrics here. And look, I was trying to give Katy Perry some vestige of credit that she was going to write songs with maturity or weight - if her instrumentation was going to be this dour, surely she'd be tackling some subjects with severity, right? Well yeah, that doesn't happen - not only does the record feel the furthest thing from specific or direct on the issues that Katy might care about, somehow the songs still manage to swivel around to focus inward and reveal both myopia and how much she's out of her depth, because it's not like the shallowness in her writing has gone away! 'Hey Hey Hey' is the most obvious example, which takes the flimsiest feminist archetype and drives it into the ground, and not only is it completely unconvincing, it ignores how embracing and accepting vulnerability is actually okay! Or take 'Bigger Than Me', where she's adamant that she needs to break out of established patterns and try new things - and yet not only does this new Katy have some of the most interchangeable and colorless production to date, she never delivers any revolutionary fire! Or take 'Mind Maze', which is trying to make comment on that reinvention, as she gets bored of a sound and moves on, where on the bridge she asks if she's a 'car on fire' - now that's a metaphor, folks! 

What's frustrating is that in the writing, I'm not hearing the reinvention. We get the overwritten or just embarrassing sex songs like 'Bon Appetit' or 'Roulette', which she literally describes her love as a bullet, and given the song's connotations means you're shooting yourself in the head with your own love - 'Tsunami' is only slightly better, and that's more because the overloaded water metaphors stop short of being that hysterical. Then we get the relationship songs... where to her credit Katy Perry seems to have taken some steps towards maturity on the lingering emotions of 'Miss You More' and 'Into Me You See', which is focused on intimacy if you say it fast enough, which probably reminds me more of 'If You Seek Amy' by Britney Spears than it should. But even then I'm not sure it excuses the title track that places her prospect as a witness to her struggles not an equal, or the dreary non-breakup of 'Deja Vu' that seems at least partially resolved on 'Power', or 'Save As Draft', where the entire song is on the precipice of going back to someone only to save that text as a draft - you know, so you can eventually go back to it and repeat the whole damn cycle again! But again, I'm not hearing anything where the descriptions or writing are all that stellar or poetic, which makes 'Chained to The Rhythm' all the more grating with every single listen, trying to burn a legacy that not only still holds across a chunk of this album, but reflects of awareness that might have only existed for Katy Perry, the pop star whose net worth is $280 million dollars, and even if it did, I don't think her audience was expecting her to make grand social commentary! 

Ugh... look, I'm frankly amazed I have this much to say about Witness, but I will say there's a certain irony that I'm covering it on the same day as Wrangled by Angaleena Presley, an artist who would have killed for country radio to accept a sound that is more experimental and rough-edged and challenging. Katy Perry, meanwhile, tumbled into success on shallow platitudes and yet when tries to transcend it to better represent herself, she finds herself mired in the most unpalatable record of her career. Both albums showcase women hemmed in by societal expectations, trying to trace their own path, both start with the letter 'w'... and yet where Presley came to some reconciliation with her lane in the indie scene, Katy Perry doesn't seem to nearly have the same self-awareness - or melody, or poise, or cohesion, or interesting content. For me, I'm thinking a light 4/10 and no way I can recommend this. But hey, if Katy Perry wants to step away from mainstream pop, providing this record doesn't deal serious damage, this might just be the push she needs. And since she's got the money to make whatever she wants many times over for the rest of her career, there's a limit to how sorry I can feel, especially if what we're getting is as shallow and boring as this.

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