Pop superstar Katy Perry broke out in at least a million different ways three years ago when she released Teenage Dream, which a past reviewer here described as "multi-faceted." And multi-faceted it was, it bared the entire essence and soul of what made Perry tick: it had candy-perfect pop, some dark moments, reflected at times, especially near the close of the album, waxed philosophical at times using subtle but powerful metaphor and also employed tongue-in-cheek humor. So what would the superstar bring in her latest album after three rather tumultuous years?
One cannot help but believe she might have set that bar way too high after several listens of Prism, which does have its moments, but for the most part seems to have chosen to play it safe and lacks a lot of the fire and charm she exhibited in Teenage Dream and even her years playing stages at Warped Tour.
The album kicks off in high note and high gear with the hit single "Roar," which soars and flies high on its own and clearly shows she knows how to make one hell of a chorus line. Her fans, especially her female base will appreciate the metaphors she uses for flying free and being empowered, especially after her rather messy divorce/breakup in 2011 with ex-husband Russell Brand. In fact the best moments on this album have some sort of fleeting reference to that dark chapter in her life.
Then the album hits a bit flat with next track "Legendary Lovers," a rather safe, formulaic and at times flat Eurotrance-like banger. Don't get this reviewer wrong, it is catchy at spots, but catchy doesn't have to come off as flat and her past efforts have shown she is capable of getting catchy and infectious without succumbing to flatlining. Dare say, "Legendary" might also come off as rather forgettable.
"Birthday" is about as close as Katy gets to her "Teenage Dream" days and that is perfectly fine. The irresistible dance-disco jam evokes musical images from Carly Rae Jepsen's "Kiss," but one may argue "Birthday" outdoes the Canadian pop superstar at her own playbook. Watch out for the middle of the song, there's a delicious double-entendre, something Katy has mastered at placing you have to listen to. It might bring a smile or even a chuckle!
Another strong moment is the 80s-dance club-like "Walking On Air" and unlike the flatlining "Legendary," the sound here works to perfection. The song is another irresistible jam and metaphorically celebrates what it would be like to be with Perry for one night on the city.
After the forgettable "Unconditionally," which like "Legendary," seems to fall completely flat on its face sonically and lyrically, we segue into the Eurotrance/Rave mix of next track "Dark Horse." It employs a very trippy, drippy base beat and (depending on your point of view) unfortunately a whole lot of Autotune, which distracts a bit from the very fact this is a pretty dark tune. A rap in the middle from Juicy J is almost as useless and pointless as Kanye West was in the remix of "E.T."
Arguably one of her weakest songs ever in execution, in lyrics, in everything is "This Is How We Do." The song tries to reach Ke$ha-like levels with the sing-talking and syncopated beat but in the end, Perry comes off as a total disaster in this track and regardless of how this reviewer feels about the aformentioned Ke$ha, Perry should have left that to someone who knows how to do it well.
"International Smile" returns Prism to a high level; it's a pretty solid pop piece and makes use of the third person view, something she employed on "Pearl" from Teenage Dream. This time she actually pays homage to one of her own producers and best friends and uses her experiences as a framing device for the entire song. A very solid, if not spectacular piece.
The second half of the album begins with the dark and rather moody "Ghost," which would have been such a groundbreaking game changer that Prism desperately was seeking for if the sonic direction wasn't so poorly conceived and executed. This was a case where the song's brooding lyrics (executed to perfection by Perry's brooding lower register) would have been better lent with a more modern but darker pop/rock (think Kelly Clarkson's "Hole" or "Irvine") take rather than a cliched attempt to put a modern spin on 80s synth-pop, which everyone seems to be doing regardless if it's right or not. So, lyrically Perry hits the right note, but the musical arrangement could have been so much better.
"Love Me" and "This Moment" returns the album to flatline status and this time, one cannot argue that neither track is unforgettable...they are both forgettable generally, except for maybe the latter in the refrain where one can feel the power of Perry's voice.
It took 12 tracks but by default of "Ghost" missing its mark sonically, your groundbreaking moment in Prism might be the interestingly named "Double Rainbow." For whatever interpretation the eventual meme in the song may evoke in listeners' minds, it is about as close as Perry will get to the whole pop zeitgeist mode that she reached on Teenage Dream. Producers allow Perry to shine from start to finish, from its ethereal beginnings to the soaring, flying majestic choral line in the refrain. In this case, going a little throwback works, Heart and Cyndi Lauper would be both very proud of this track.
"By The Grace of God" is one of those pieces fans will either love for its "in-your face" emotional bent or hate it for being so un-radio friendly. But it is clear this was something Perry needed to get off her chest in a lyrical cathartic sense. One does not need to go very far to understand where she is coming from and whom she is referring to and what in her life. And for inquiring minds, this is about as close as Katy will likely ever get as far as honestly talking about her failed marriage and resulting aftermath, which includes depression and thoughts of suicide.
Out of the darkness and depression of "By The Grace of God" comes the light in "Spiritual," which of course highlights her current relationship with John Mayer. It is a smartly placed piece.
Too bad though, Prism ends on the poorly executed and conceived "It Takes Two of Us," which seems more suited for a singer-songwriter like Sara Bareilles and the sonically unnecessary "Choose Your Battles." The latter's tribal drum beat seemed a tad bit distracting and the occasional autotune once again did too much to Perry's voice. Once again, something that comes off as dark and venomous demanded a more simpler, maybe even acoustic arrangement to really punch and deliver the message.
What we have here in the end for Prism is
exactly what is described in the headline. This album generally plays it safe and it took 12 tracks with a near miss in "Ghost" before Perry reaches for something remotely groundbreaking. Fellow critics remark that this album clearly shows that she is in on the joke about her pop stardom and what her critics think about it, but like Maroon 5's Overexposed, perhaps the joke wears a bit thin and the listener or at least this reviewer is yearning for something more from someone who can clearly deliver the goods sonically and lyrically...TOGETHER. This album has its moments, but its rather disjointed path from start to finish is a clear detraction and perhaps a step or two down of what Katy Perry is capable of doing.