10 years removed from her record-setting album Teenage Dream, the kind of musical world – and the world at large – that allowed such an extravagant and carefree pop album to dominate as much as it did has shifted. After trying somewhat awkwardly to make the transition on her previous project, Witness, which she deemed “purposeful pop,” Katy Perry has returned with Smile. Here, she shifts the intended target of her trademark empowerment anthems from the listener to herself as she takes a deeper dive than ever into her struggles to maintain the constantly positive and upbeat nature of her public image. While her access to top pop producers does provide the occasional smash, most of Perry’s approach here falls completely flat. It’s hard to say if it’s because the concept of what “pop music” has been altered so drastically, but it’s tough to imagine any of the melodies Perry delivers here becoming the instantly recognizable timeless classics that her older material is overflowing with, despite her method not really changing. On top of her repetitive and blown-out dance-pop trends that have since died down, Perry’s surface-level lyrical approaches to dealing with sadness can come off as both ingenuine and somewhat tone-deaf in the current global climate. When she hits, she hits hard. It’s just becoming less and less likely with each album.
The album kicks off with a single released at the beginning of summer 2019, “Never Really Over,” which ends up being one of the album’s better tracks. Producer Zedd’s marching band drumline percussion and Perry’s double-chorus as she alternates from an impressively belted section to a rapid-fire machine gun of lyrics are enough of an earworm to make you completely forget about her insistence on shoehorning in quirky lyrics about hypnotherapy and the like as she does on nearly all of her singles. Outside of a decent run of three tracks closer to the end of the album, there’s not much else to find here. The album progresses from here to a pair of tracks that share what is essentially the exact same theme of partying through the pain and dancing with tears in your eyes. The first, “Cry About It Later,” fares slightly better with an admittedly catchy but highly repetitive hook and a driving electropop beat that steadily builds as the track progresses, but the magic quickly wears off halfway through when you’ve heard all the song has to offer and your mind starts wandering to the scores of better songs you’ve heard in the same vein. Most of the appeal of Perry’s music now is how much her pure and booming vocals can surprise and catch the listener off guard with some soaring notes, but here she mostly stays in a small range masked by the pulsating club beats. The track “Teary Eyes” comes off even more dated with some washed-out house percussion, a tired “whoa-oh” hook and an obnoxiously robotic filter applied to Perry’s vocals.
The track “Daisies” legitimately might have one of the worst melodies I’ve heard all year as Perry makes a massive jump to a high note that doesn’t fit the melodic structure of the song as a critical moment in the chorus, but what is even worse about the track is Perry’s lyricism. Saying something like “When did we all stop believing in magic” in the year 2020 is more than a little questionable, even if it fits in with the unicorns and rainbows that have accompanied Perry her whole career. Sometimes, you have to pull a bit of a Lana Del Rey and do a complete 180 in content when the time calls for it. Happiness can be great to sing about and celebrate, but it’s not as easily achieved as Perry suggests. As the track abruptly shifts from atmospheric synths to acoustic strumming, Perry goes on with clichés about sticks and stones as she rehashes the most basic messages about being yourself. On the next two tracks, we get a chorus about flowers growing through the concrete on slow burner “Resilient” and turning a frown upside down on “Not the End of the World.” A one-off lyric might have been fine, but these are genuinely the main point of these tracks. The latter track makes a swing at modernization with the most standard of trap beats, but I don’t think I can take a sample of “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” seriously no matter what you do.
The album picks up in a big way with its title track kicking off the back half, introducing a run of three that stands out much more than the surrounding tracks and plays more into the funk and disco elements of the most exciting pop music of today. Most of these tracks sound like Perry is trying really hard to make it appear as though she’s having fun, but this is one of the only ones where she genuinely does. Featuring some old-school DJ scratches and a blaring syncopated synth line, Perry draws out her syllables as she celebrates rediscovering her smile and throws out some funny pop culture references. The track “Champagne Problems” is another strong one driven by a prominent funk bassline and some of Perry’s more believable lyrics as she goes into detail about the rough patches that she persevered through in her relationship. The instrumental bridge adds even more complexity in the synth textures before a more subdued version of the bridge kicks off a final, celebratory chorus. It’s a lot easier to get into the breezy escapism and summery guitars of “Tucked” if you forget about the decades of pop tropes it so borrows from more obviously than any other track here and simply submit to the joy conveyed by Perry’s breathy and carefree delivery. I can definitely see it becoming one of my biggest growers of the year regardless.
The final run of three tracks kicks off with another one of the truly baffling single choices here in “Harleys In Hawaii,” which was surprisingly co-produced by an uncharacteristically bland Charlie Puth. Here, Perry indulges in some of her worst lyrical tendencies as she dreams about heart-shaped highways and rhymes “hula-hula” with “jeweler-jeweler.” The track never energetically breaks free from Perry sounding strangely uninterested as she repeats a melodic segment of two notes over and over. The album closes out with two more instances of Perry taking a big concept and reducing it down to its most surface-level ideas over a vaguely inspirational-sounding instrumental – the kind of songs fit for reality TV contestants aiming to pull at heartstrings. “Only Love” sees Perry using her last day on Earth to mend feuds and connect with her family backed up by gospel harmonies, while “What Makes A Woman” sees her suggesting that the definition of femininity is its inability to be defined over an acoustic loop set to pounding percussion.
In a world where forward-thinking pop music is pushing hard to gain the cultural zeitgeist back from hip-hop, there’s nothing I would have loved more than to see someone like Katy Perry storm back from Witness with a vengeance, but this isn’t it. It seems like she’s been a step behind everyone else for a while, but as she says on the album, giving up caring about commercial success might still herald something interesting in the future.
Favourite Tracks: Smile, Never Really Over, Tucked
Least Favourite Track: Daisies