Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Review: 'Prism' by Katy Perry

2013 was quite a competitive year on the pop music front. While in my opinion the year was a bit lacking album-wise, there were several contenders for the best pop record of the year. Three candidates rose above others, at least what it came to public attention: Miley Cyrus's Bangerz, Lady Gaga's Artpop, and Katy Perry's Prism. As it tends to go, music journalists were more than enthusiastic to pit these three against each others, which wasn't helped by the fact that they were all released within a month.

To tell you the truth, I'm not really a big fan of any of them, and find the idea of media pitting female celebrities against each others as nothing more than lazy journalism (catfights equal 'shocking' headlines). There was one thing that did capture my attention, however: whereas both Cyrus and Gaga relied heavily on shock value in their promotional campaigns (seriously, they've taken desperate attention seeking to a whole new stratosphere), Perry's album promotion appeared much more moderate: gone was the in-your-face provocativeness of "I Kissed A Girl" and the muffin-shaped bras. Rather than opting for the candy-coloured rubber dresses of her past, she toned it all down this time, setting herself above the pointless exaggeration and let the music do the talking - hats off for that. In addition, "Roar" was admittedly one of the catchiest pop singles last year (I even chose it for my 'Best of 2013' list) so I wanted to see what the fuzz was all about. And boy was I pleasantly surprised!

I must admit I've never listened to a Katy Perry album before and I've only heard the singles so I didn't really know what to expect from this, but Prism turned out to be a lovely pop album indeed. Compared to her previous work (well, at least the material I'm familiar with anyway), Prism establishes the 29-year-old singer as a much more self-confident musician, albeit that the feeling of matureness here might also partially stem from the contrast between this and her previous album, titled Teenage Dream. Then again, her personal history does reflect in the album as well: she had previously gone through a divorce which had even brought self-destructive thoughts into her mind. Her subsequent recovery and newfound strength is a carrying theme throughout the album.

The lead single and album opener "Roar", which I'm sure you've all heard by now, for example serves as a self-empowerement anthem describing a failed relationship: "You held me down, but I got up" she sings, before ultimately declaring "'Cause I am a champion, and you're gonna here me roar!" in what is one of the biggest pop choruses of the year. Similar emotional awakening is dealt with in the beautiful "Love Me" ("No more second guessing / No, there's no more questioning / I'll be the one defining who I'm gonna to be").

"Ghost" is a bittersweet story about the infamous text message that her ex-husband Russell Brand announced the divorce with: "With every kiss and every letter / Every promise of forever, oh / But you hit 'Send' / And disappeared in front of my eyes". Then, in order to show that she's over it, she states that he's dead to her now: "So rest in peace / I'll see you on the other side". And then there's the touching piano-led closing ballad "By The Grace of God" about the time when she was fighting off the aforementioned suicidal thoughts: "By the grace of God (there was no other way) / I picked myself back up (I knew I had to stay)". It also has one of the best middle eights on the album. Thankfully, there is also a more optimistic ballad earlier on the album: the powerful "Unconditionally" is about, well, loving someone unconditionally and accepting another person's flaws. And fear not, even in the darker songs Perry always finds a spark of hope.

To compensate for the deeper, more personal material there's of course the poppier, more danceable tracks too. "Birthday" is a fun disco pop tune that plays with double entendre lyrics: "So let me get you in your birthday suit / It's time to bring out the big balloons". The hilariously catchy '90s dance romp "Walking On Air" with blatantly sexual lyrics ("Just when I think I can't take anymore / We go deeper and harder than ever before" etc.) even paints Perry as a bit of a house diva à la Crystal Waters and had me hit the replay button a lot upon first listen. A lot. Another equally catchy track is "International Smile", a more traditional 'Katy Perry dance-pop tune' if you will, which was inspired by her friend DJ Mia Moretti and describes a jet-setting cosmopolitan who "takes you miles high, so high / 'cause she's got that one international smile". A potential hit single for next summer, for sure. It also comes with a Vocoder bridge brilliant enough to make Daft Punk jealous.

Not all of the more uptempo tunes quite go all the way, though. The album's 'girl anthem' "This Is How We Do" is funnily recorded as if Perry was performing the song in front of a live audience, with her occasionally interacting with them: "This one goes out to the ladies at breakfast in last night's dress". However, it ends up sounding a tad too much like a lost Ke$ha song. Then, whatever was the point of "Dark Horse" is beyond me - Perry's take on trap music feels completely out of place on this record and seems like an unnecessary effort to sound hip and trendy. Also, aren't rap solos by featuring artists a bit passé, a bit late-noughties by now? 'Cause they sure as fuck should be.

Perry fares much better in genre-hopping on the anthemic "Legendary Lovers". Imagine this: the intro starts with what sounds like a Slavic string instrument. Then she goes all Bhangra in the lyrics that speak of blooming lotuses, third eyes and mantras. But wait, then the chorus kicks in and it sounds like it's taken from an Icelandic indie folk rock Eurovision entry. And then the second verse flirts with trap music. Oh, and did I mention the Bollywood-inspired bridge already? Okay, there's no way this song could ever work, right? But it does. Actually, it's one of the most memorable moments on the album, funnily enough. It just screams for a single release. (It has already charted in South Korea, of all places.)

The latter half of the record doesn't have quite as many stand-out moments - I guess the songs with single potential were placed on the first half - but it does feature lovely mellow pop numbers anyway: "This Moment" celebrates living (and loving) in the moment, while the graceful "Double Rainbow" (co-penned by Sia) is one of the prettiest moments on the album. Now, the thing about the album is that it is a wee bit lengthy. Clocking at nearly 49 minutes, it could've probably done with a track or two less (*cough* "This Is How We Do" and "Dark Horse" come to mind, *cough*.) Furthermore, looking at the three Prism bonus tracks, I'm having a serious issue with why on earth "Spiritual" wasn't included on the ordinary version - the Moby-esque soaring number is far too good to be 'just a bonus track'!

Minor rant aside, Prism is indeed a surprisingly fine pop album, even though the lyrical content might not always be as memorable on the less-personal tracks. (Then again, I suppose overt sexual references and such go inevitably hand in hand with pop music.) Nevertheless, it's got great songs that make the album both big and airy, funny and thoughtful, catchy and atmospheric, focused and diverse. Katy Perry is in fact much more than just peppermint brassiere and Friday night party songs. I have absolutely no interest in partaking in any of the media's agitation for catfights, but I do feel comfortable saying that Prism is one of the better pop releases of the past year.

4 / 5

Try at least: "Legendary Lovers", "International Smile", "Walking On Air", "Love Me", "Spiritual" 

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