On Katy Perry’s 2013 album, Prism, there’s a song called “International Smile.” It’s as infectious and stupid-fun as a pep rally, with a buoyant groove and undeniable melody courtesy of pop alchemists Max Martin and Dr. Luke. The cheerleader at the center of it all is rah-rahing her way around the globe, encouraging everyone to join in: “From Tokyo, to Mexico, to Riooooooo!” It’s such a peak Katy Perry moment, you can imagine her eye-rolling the words as she belted them in the vocal booth.
That feel-good champion is hard to find on Witness, Perry’s eagerly anticipated follow-up. Instead the 32-year-old is mostly reflective, anxious — and fired up. And can you really blame her? In the four years since Prism‘s release, the world has profoundly changed, including for Perry. She’s weathered very public breakups (most recently with Orlando Bloom), made peace with her pastor father (who, in his sermons, has reportedly criticized his daughter’s life choices), and watched as Hillary Clinton, whom Perry vocally supported, lost the election to Donald Trump. So on “Hey Hey Hey,” co-written by Perry with Sia and Martin, she makes her frustrations clearly known — toward one unnamed misogynist specifically and the patriarchy in general: “I’m feminine and soft, but I’m still a boss, yeah/Red lipstick but still so raw, yeah/Marilyn Monroe in a monster truck.”
Proud girl-power moments like those course throughout much of Witness. And it’s refreshing to hear Perry distance herself further from the PG-rated fun of Teenage Dream, one of those perfect, once-in-a-lifetime pop albums. Here, she shoots for Big Important Messages: There’s an inward-looking anthem about finding your purpose (“Bigger Than Me”), an electro-R&B ballad about wanting to free yourself from a dead-end relationship (“Déjà Vu”), and a timely rumination on the suckiness of living in a digital world (“Save as Draft”). There’s also a curious detour into gospel territory on the uplifting “Pendulum.”
Instead of relying solely on the songcraft of Martin, who produced Witness with Perry, she’s found new talents: house wunderkind Duke Dumont, British electro artist Jack Garratt, Hot Chip, and Mike WiLL Made-It, among others. Those collaborators’ penchant for chilly melodies — versus blazing, smash-you-over-the-head hooks — meshes well with Perry’s diary of reflection and self-enlightenment. In fact, many of these songs are written in sad-sounding minor keys as opposed to cheery major ones. It’s a smart trick.
Still, this is a Katy Perry record, so she wisely serves up a few sugar rushes. Despite the corny double entendres of “Bon Appétit” (“Hope you’ve got some room/For the world’s best cherry pie” — ugh!), musically it’s a delicious slab of Eurodisco. And the thumping jam “Swish Swish” is one of the best party-starters of her career, destined for some killer remixes. Hearing these tracks alongside the more serious fare on Witness ultimately creates the feeling of a record that’s all over the place. If there were a few more pure pop moments like those songs, Perry would’ve made something truly worth witnessing.
A chronicle of a doomed relationship, with a groove that’s lighter than air.
Perry’s sassy kiss-off to a “calculated” phony, featuring a fiery verse from Nicki Minaj.