In a world where the idea of the “pop girl” is holding less and less weight, the mainstream sound shifting to a more urban area, trend-setter and record-breaker Katy Perry drops her fifth studio album, Witness. It is her first in nearly four years, surprising fans with her new appearance, politically geared messages and new ventures in sound on singles like “Bon Appetit” and “Swish Swish”. Perry certainly takes a lot of risks on Witness, and seeing her venture out of her comfort zone is very welcome, even if a few of them are more successful in concept than in execution.
Unfortunately, the other half of the album is weighed down by bland, filler pop tracks that sound like they were recorded years ago. We couldn’t expect Perry to be completely experimental now, could we? Still, this album ends up being better than I anticipated, and there are some standout tracks which rise far above the rest.
Perry ventures down more of an EDM path over the course of this album than she has in the past, often letting synth piano hooks or pounding basslines dictate the flow of the track in the chorus rather than her vocal melodies. She does recruit some interesting collaborators to bring these aspects out – Trip-hop duo Purity Ring appears on more than one occasion, standout track “Swish Swish” was masterminded by deep house DJ Duke Dumont, and the closing track is credited to indietronica band “Hot Chip”. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Perry album without Swedish pop wizard Max Martin, who is in charge of about half of the tracks here.
There are a lot of misguided decisions on this project, to be sure, but when Perry hits, she hits hard. I never thought a Katy Perry song would give me chills, but here is “Roulette”. A dancefloor synth bassline slowly creeps in behind a breakbeat building up to a perfectly structured chorus. Perry’s range is in its sweet spot here, and the little alterations made along the way, like cutting out the music for a bit on the second chorus, only make it better. This actually kicks off a fantastic three-track run: “Roulette” is followed up by “Swish Swish”, which might be the best single of Perry’s career, and eerie ballad “Deja Vu”.
Really though, how much fun is “Swish Swish”? That SNL performance, with the dancing backpack kid, really brings out the insane energy of this track visually. Dumont’s deep house instrumental, Perry ruthlessly dishing out shots and Nicki Minaj delivering a hilarious, characteristically incredibly feature verse complete the dance floor banger. When Perry’s voice hits its emotional peak, her songs come across better, which is why it is unfortunate how disingenuous her current era seems. Some of the later tracks stand out as well for this reason: “Save As Draft”, in particular. It is one of the slowest tracks on the album, EDM influence being removed while Perry convincingly emotes about her inability to communicate in her relationship.
“Hey Hey Hey” is the biggest manifestation of the problems which affect the album as a whole. Perry has always attempted to have some sort of quirky edge to her lyrics, making outdated references or strange similes and metaphors to fit her fun-loving persona. It’s rarely worked, and I’m not sure why it continues here. All it does is make her look like an out-of-touch aging act trying to fit in with today’s culture. “You think that I am fragile like a Fabergé”? God…
The instrumentals of quite a few of these tracks don’t help rid her of that image much either. Some of the EDM aspects are simply completely outdated – the enormous breakbeat and wobble bass that backs “Power” hearkens back to the days when dubstep was inescapable, and the distortion on Perry’s vocals detracts from the song even further. “Mind Maze” is another inexplicable decision, as she is coated with excessive Auto-Tune for seemingly no artistic or meaningful reason.
“Bon Appetit” as a whole is pretty inexcusable. Much like rival Taylor Swift’s track “Bad Blood”, it sounds almost as if the melody of its chorus was made up on the spot. The completely blatant and pervasive food metaphors and puns running throughout and repetitive instrumental only make things worse. There are so many times over the course of this album where Perry still opted to play it safe, which is confusing given how successful her artistic reaches on tracks like “Roulette” and “Swish Swish” were on the same album. Much of the second half- tracks like “Tsunami” and “Pendulum” – just devolve into the same tired pop tropes she’s been trying to push for her whole career.
And just as a final, weird nitpick – Perry tends to write lyrics so that she needs to emphasize the wrong syllable of a word in order to fit with the song’s rhythm. This persists here, infuriatingly.
Witness is ultimately an uneven and oftentimes contradictory compilation of tracks that shows promise to be so much more. Perry has a lot of people on her side, and it’s not like she isn’t a talented singer. Something better really should have come together here.
Favourite Tracks: Swish Swish, Roulette, Deja Vu, Save As Draft
Least Favourite Track: Mind Maze