What do you do when you’ve conquered the world of pop? That’s the question Katy Perry will have had to ask herself when working on her fourth studio album, 2017’s ‘Witness’. After bursting onto the scene with chart-topping – but now-lyrically-dubious – ‘I Kissed A Girl’ over a decade ago, she’s became a household name. The release of game-changing second album ‘Teenage Dream’, now almost exactly a decade ago, saw her become the genre’s reigning queen.
She’s decimated industry records: ‘Teenage Dream’, with its delicious, sherbet-laced bangers stuffed with tongue-in-cheek lyrics, made history when it became the second album ever to produce five Billboard 100 number one singles (following Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’). Her 2015 Super Bowl performance was an indisputable triumph, becoming the most-watched half-time show on broadcaster NBC: 120 million viewers can’t be wrong.
Perry was the neon bright pop phoenix, risen from the flames of her previous country-gospel career (she released one Christian rock album under the name Katy Hudson, before swapping to Katy Perry and dropping her major label debut ‘One of the Boys’ in 2008). Here was a megastar who ruled charts around the world.
After another collection of sweet and sour pop in 2013’s ‘Prism’, Perry switched things up for ‘Witness’. This was part of a new era of what she called “purposeful pop”, coupling socially conscious lyrics with new musical influences as she embraced dance, electro-pop and hip-hop. It was a comparative flop. The muddled collection lacked massive smashers and only lead single ‘Chained to the Rhythm’ cracked the UK Top 10.
The good news is that on fifth album ‘Smile’ she confidently sounds recharged, returning to bright, supersized pop associated with her. Having shrugged off past criticism, she exudes a new sense of optimism.
Lead single ‘Never Really Over’ (which interpolates Nowegian singer Dagny’s punch-drunk belter ‘Love You Like That’) is a stonking song and one of Perry’s best in years. With its euphoric chorus and electronic beats, this is a glimpse of the joyous pop that Perry is synonymous with. It’s frustrating, then, that the rest of ‘Smile’ lacks the fizzle and cheek that made earlier releases such gems.
The trap-flecked ‘Not the End of the World’ (which samples ’70s pop-rockers Steam’s feel-good 1969 hit ‘Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye’) feels like radio fodder, adopting trendy production techniques to gloss over a lack of substance. ‘Champagne Problems’, which boasts a strutting funk bassline and sees Perry celebrate her successful relationship (“We put the dirty work in / Became the better version”) is pretty much the definition of corny.
It isn’t even that the songs are bad – it’s worse than that: they’re largely forgettable. Gone are the pithy couplets and catchier-than-a-rash hooks, replaced with lacklustre imitations. The poorly-charting ‘Harleys in Hawaii’ (it scraped the UK Top 40, though not the Billboard Hot 100), with its sultry tropical instrumentals, seeps from your memory as it finishes, while electro-bop ‘Teary Eyes’ is pleasant enough but lacks the Perry panache you crave.
There are a few golden nuggets: the stomping ‘Tucked’, with a swaggering guitar riff that evokes the glory days of ‘One of the Boys’, is an empowering celebration of knowing your own worth, as is the twinkling ‘Daisies’ (the name likely a sweet reference to her newborn daughter Daisy Dove). Yet these moments are nestled amongst mulchy filler – and while Perry has returned to her tried-and-tested formula of vivid pop, there’s a missing ingredient.
It’s frustrating, as this is the woman behind some of the most fun – and biggest-selling – songs of all time. But as much as you want ‘Smile’ to be a return to form, her fifth album’s songs fail to grip. All in all, ‘Smile’ lacks the fireworks of Perry’s record-breaking years.
Release date: Friday 28 August
Record label: Capitol