Katy Perry. One of the most successful and celebrated singer-songwriters of all time, Katy Perry has amassed nine #1 singles, tied one of Michael Jackson’s most outstanding chart records with her second album, and sold over 140 million records worldwide. Her career has been a fascinating one – marked with some of the biggest peaks in music history and some of the most shocking valleys in modern pop music. Her last album, 2017’s Witness, was widely hailed as the mark of Katy’s critical and commercial decline. Despite the album’s #1 debut, it sold just 900,000 copies worldwide and collected a single Top 10 hit (“Chained to the Rhythm (feat. Skip Marley)”). The album explored themes of feminism and general social consciousness and while it was panned upon release, some of its impact can already be seen in the pop music of today. For example, BLACKPINK’s Lady Gaga (“Sour Candy“) and Selena Gomez (“Ice Cream“) collaborations build, in part, on Katy’s infamous Migos collaboration, “Bon Appétit.” Speaking of “Sour Candy,” many have remarked that the song sounds similar to one of the more popular Witness tracks: “Swish Swish (feat. Nicki Minaj).”
Three years removed from Witness, Katy had two main roads to take. On the one hand, this was seemingly Katy’s final chance to deliver an undeniable pop record and reclaim her top spot in the pop game. On the other hand, this could have been Katy’s transition into the adult contemporary arena of Kelly Clarkson and P!NK, a direction in which “Daisies” pointed. Instead, Smile is a brief but valiant attempt to reconcile Katy’s post-Witness perspective shift, her strong history of powerful pop anthems, and a vastly different musical landscape than the ones she has encountered in the past.
Smile opens with the ebullient “Never Really Over,” the excellent comeback pop anthem that she launched a little over a year ago. The bubbly number combines a slew of hooks, bouncy synths, and addictive drums to deliver a song that sets the defiant and triumphant tone of the album. Lyrically, the song alludes to a dark period that Katy has recently overcome. The celebratory sound of the song is echoed later in the album, namely on the title track and “Daisies,” a sonic element that could have used a stronger counterbalance. If anything, having “Never Really Over” as the opening track, as well as the true lead single, presents a harsh dilemma: “Never Really Over” promises a set of songs that are fresh takes on the bubblegum pop of Katy’s past. Instead, Smile greets us with an awkward balance of flat songs and arresting musical moments.
Sandwiched between two of the album’s pre-singles, there are “Cry About It Later” and “Teary Eyed.” The former twists the pure pop of the preceding track into a punk-pop-influenced number about delaying the act of working through and processing pain and trauma. This delayal is assisted by “pourin’ it, pourin’ it, pourin’ it nonstop” and getting “ready for a shameless summer.” The cool apathy of Katy’s voice coupled with a slight rasp saves the weak repetitive hook from falling flat. For most of the song’s duration, it feels as though it never quite reaches the climax it searches for. Nevertheless, the vocoder-laced electric guitar solo achieves that feeling. “Teary Eyed,” on the other hand, sees Katy trying her hand at the greatest subgenre of dance-pop — uptempo tracks that are built on melancholy lyrics. Katy implores us, and herself, to “just keep on dancin’ with those teary eyes” even if “life has left you with a question mark.” Much of Smile‘s issues lurk in the clunky heavy-handed lyricism, but they can normally be salvaged by a strong arrangement and interesting production. Unfortunately, “Teary Eyed’s” feels dated in the way that it sounds like a less catchy 2016 Chainsmokers’ production. The song hints at slight house influences, and if they were tapped into more, Katy could have yielded a better result.
“Daisies” introduces some guitars to break up the stronghold that programmed beats have had over the album so far. Upon release, “Daisies” felt like a new direction for Katy; a sound decidedly aimed towards the adult Top 40 lane that still sounded grounded and original. Katy gave birth to her first child, Daisy Dove Bloom, just two days before the release of Smile. This adds a greater gravity and nuance to the song. The musical direction that “Daisies” teases is ultimately abandoned at multiple points on Smile. “Champagne Problems” is a particularly dry number. The bass-driven track attempts to ride its disco influences away from the musty shadow of the weak lyrics. “We put the dirty work in/Became a better version/Now we’re celebrating,” Katy sings; the sentiment is there, but the execution feels painfully elementary. The forgettable “Tucked” soon follows with less egregious issues; it is simply not a compelling song. Similarly, “Only Love” amounts to nothing more than mindless background music which is incredibly frustrating because Katy has shown on this very album that she is capable of effectively pushing herself to deliver genuinely interesting pop gems.
Of Smile‘s brighter moments, there’s the previously released “Harleys In Hawaii” — a sultry midtempo that’s layered with atmospheric ad-libs, slight drifts into falsetto, and motorcycle sound effects. “Resilient” teeters on the edgy of reductive for most of its run. In the way that Katy uncoventionally stretches out the word “resilient,” the hook is reminiscent of “Unconditionally” from 2013’s Prism. Also from that album, there are echoes of “Roar” in “Resilient” from the motivational lyrics to its anthemic feel. “Resilient” doesn’t truly pick up until the strings and background vocals round out the bridge as it builds into a final chorus filled with conviction. There’s a slight strain to Katy’s voice at the end of her belts that aren’t coming from literal vocal strain. They’re signifiers of a deep connection with the message of this song. If Katy sells any track on Smile, it’s “Resilient.” One of the album’s standouts is “Not the End of the World,” a track that feels like a cousin to “Dark Horse (feat. Juicy J).” Sonically, the song is somewhere between Iggy Azalea‘s “Black Widow” and the glittery trap-pop foundation of Ariana Grande‘s thank u, next. Admittedly, Katy’s talk-singing in the verses is a bit rigid, but the gradual progression of the the production’s dynamism more than makes up for that. The trap influences perfectly underscore the song’s fantasy/dystopian lyrical elements, and the interpolation of Steam’s “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Good Bye” is the most genius musical moment of the album. “Not the End of the World” feels like a conversation between Katy and her subconscious; it’s the most intimate and honest look at her psyche post-Witness. In a smart sequencing decision, the title track offers a more bubbly feel to the running theme of overcoming trauma and pushing forward. Nonetheless, the saccharine horns are a jarring switch from the darker production of “Not the End of the World.”
Herein lies Smile‘s chief issue: for all of its determined positivity and declarations of peace and wholeness, there is little evidence to suggest that Katy’s lyrical or sonic approach to music has significantly changed or matured. She is still reliant on tired idioms, overused metaphors, and simple narrative structures to tell stories that deserve something greater. Where her peers have delivered some of their most daring and expansive work to date (Lemonade, ANTI, folklore, etc,), Smile plays it painfully safe. Katy hints multiple times at stronger approaches to pop and solid attempts at new sonic ground, but her lack of steadfast commitment prevents Smile from showcasing her full potential as a singer, songwriter, and artist. From “By the Grace of God” to “Witness,” Katy has proven that she is more than capable of making mature pop songs that are just as captivating as her bubblegum classics, so it’s difficult to understand what exactly is holding her back. Her interviews and music present two different personas.
There is, however, a key to Katy’s next chapter and it’s hidden in the first minute or so of Smile‘s closer: “What Makes A Woman.” The tender track is a more heartfelt political moment than “Chained to the Rhythm,” but that’s not the impressive part. The beginning of the song is a distinctively country affair from the folksy guitar licks to the somber questions in the lyrics. Of course, the song is decorated with electronic flourishes, but the combination works well — it would be the perfect new lane for Katy to experiment in. The song is a heartwarming ode to her young daughter and simultaneously a homecoming for Katy herself after the intense criticism and bullying she faced during the campaign for her last album. Katy has spoken at length about how the deeply negative response to Witness impacted her, so when she whispers “there you go, Katheryn,” Smile reaches its true goal. More important than the impending future of her musical direction or the chart performance of her latest singles is Katy’s security and belief in herself, something she truly regains by the end of “What Makes A Woman.”
In essence, Smile is a transitional album that is not without its moments of genius and greatness. Now, it is time to pull from Smile‘s most inventive moments to properly mold Katy into the next iteration of herself, whatever that may be.
Key Tracks: “Never Really Over” | “What Makes A Woman” | “Not the End of the World”