When it comes to bubblegum, sometimes, if chewed too long, it grows stale.
The recently tumultuous career of pop superstar and record breaker Katy Perry has reached an impasse. After 2017’s Witness was a personal disaster for the singer, Perry felt the need to recalibrate to the sound that shot her to fame. It;s not a strange move for a pop star of her level. Actually, it’s more of a learned track; a crutch used to course correct a media attacked image. From Taylor Swift’s reputation follow up Lover to Britney Spears’ Blackout successor Circus, pop stars often toe the line between light and darkness driven by their public perception at the time.
The problem with notions like these is that, because these artists are so far removed from the everyman, they often overestimate how necessary sonic retreads are. Witness, while a huge underperformer relative to Perry’s previous work, had its moments. “Chained to the Rhythm” is an expertly crafted pop single that painted the national political anxiety that was suddenly spread throughout America.
The entire LP was a failed experiment, but that doesn’t suggest an artist should stop taking risks altogether. Unfortunately, musicians at this level of commercial success often feel the pressure to appeal to the masses at the expense of their artistry. Smile is a symptom of that – a fine, middle of the road pop record that the listener will listen to once, hopefully in full, and immediately forget about once it’s completed its run.
Even fireworks have to fizzle out eventually.
The album’s narrative largely tells a tale of personal redemption. Opening with “Never Really Over,” a year-old smash single, Perry expresses the undying nature of a deep love. Regardless of its existence in the present moment, it marks her forever. Sampling Dagny’s incredible “I Love You Like That,” the song remains the strongest on the album.
The following songs are disappointing, spreading platitudes of self-love, growth, and resiliency. The latter theme spotlit on “Resilient,” is a grating chant with little to offer but juvenile lyricism. This plague continues on “Cry About It Later” and “Teary Eyes.” The former, meant to be the anchor single of the album’s release, features one of the weakest hooks in the singer’s discography to date. At the time of this writing, its difficult to recall what “Teary Eyes” sounds like – it’s that forgettable.
Draping her best Post Malone costume, Perry adopts a hip hop beat with “Not the End of the World.” Again, it’s not a horrible track, it simply lacks a personality sharp enough to leave an impression on the listener. Perry, as fans know her from Teenage Dream and Prism, dissolves beneath the smoke and mirrors of desperate mass appeal.
This is perhaps no more obvious than on the title track, single “Smile.” Its repetitive, concise, and boring. Where most songs have bridges, the track showcases what was meant to be a dance break, but instead feels like a rapper missed his deadline to throw a watered down verse in support of the singer.
The album, while filled with cavities, beams in moments. Most previously released tracks are great. “Daisies” accomplishes what other positive anthems on the record fail to get across. Its stadium boom and powerful vocal elevate it from the crowd of shrugs. “Harleys in Hawaii” is another tasty treat. It features Perry’s signature lower register, seductively taking listeners with her on a one on one vacation. She’s in love on the track, and rarely for this album, it feels authentic.
The final two tracks, “Only Love” and “What Makes A Woman,” continue the conclusion on a high. The former, surely succumbing to the clichés of earlier moments on Smile, is set apart for its honest lyrics. The track is truly personal to Perry’s experience, allowing the viewer a chance to empathize.
The soft punctuation of “What Makes A Woman” ends the album well enough. It encapsulates the main takeaway of the record; Perry has recovered from personal strife, but her music has yet to progress and push any more boundaries.