Entertainment

10.22.13

‘Prism’ Review: Katy Perry Perfects the Pop Blockbuster

Katy Perry’s Prism is an elixir of empowerment that roars. It also sounds an awful lot like Teenage Dream. Not that we’re complaining.

The best thing about Prism is that it sounds exactly like a Katy Perry album. That’s also, as it happens, all you need to know to determine whether or not you’ll enjoy Prism, as the album is—just as 2010’s hit Teenage Dream was—a prolonged, sometimes silly, always catchy “you go girl” proclamation. But if Teenage Dream purred, Prism roars. Perry is a pop general, perched atop a candy rainbow, bathing her army of fans in an elixir of empowerment.

Does Prism mark a more mature Perry? Sure, at least thematically. On “By the Grace of God,” she sings about contemplating suicide. Is it a more spiritual Perry? Why not. “Legendary Lovers” has her cooing at her man over sitar backing to “say my name like a scripture.” But is Prism, as it has been hyped by its musical masterminds, the debut of a creatively all-grown-up Perry? Not to burst anyone’s bubblegum bubble, but it’s not. That’s something to be thankful for.

The success of Teenage Dream could ostensibly be boiled down to its title song’s mantra: “You and I/ We’ll be young forever.” There was an unabashed, defiant glee in that line that echoed throughout the album’s confectionary celebrations—in every party, heartbreak, joy, and disappointment that being “young forever” entails. The musical promise of eternal youth sold to the tune of 5.5 million copies and five number-one singles.

Though Prism shades the incessant sunniness of Teenage Dream with more introspective fare, it’s injected with the same ingredient that turned Perry’s 2010 album into such a blockbuster and sets her apart from her edgier peers: pure pop positivity. Prism’s lead off single, the sweeping self-empowerment “Roar” expertly sets the tone for the theme of the new collection, a 16-track rally cry for casting away life’s battlefield of haters, personal struggles, and romantic woes. Win. Overcome. “Hear me roar.”

Whether it’s the bouncy, technicolor dance-floor jam “International Smile,” the aching way she asserts “I’m going to love myself/ The way I want you to love me” on the lift-me-up ballad “Love Me,” or the thumping ‘90s dance-pop ecstasy of “Walking on Air,” Prism plays like the musical manifestation of The Oprah Winfrey Show, each song imploring—begging—us all to live our best lives. Have fun. Party. Love life. Love yourself. “By the Grace of God” finds Perry uncharacteristically vulnerable, on the bathroom floor and apparently considering suicide, but even that track adheres to Prism’s can’t-hold-me-down mandate. “I looked in the mirror and decided to stay,” she sings, because she “Wasn’t gonna let love take me out that way.”

“Grace of God,” with its sincerity, is a stark reminder that Prism improves on Teenage Dream. “Teenage Dream,” “California Gurls,” “Last Friday Night”—these thrived on irresistible hooks and choruses that demanded a sing-a-long. But Perry never really developed beyond the cartoon persona she debuted with “I Kissed a Girl.” She’s still as colorful as ever, but there’s a humanity in her voice that was missing from Teenage Dream, and which got that record so often written off as pop cheese.

Prism plays like the musical manifestation of The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Nowhere else is this humanity more naked than in “Ghost,” reportedly about how ex-husband Russell Brand divorced her via text message. Perry rides a driving drum beat into the soaring chorus. The lyrics are blatantly personal, her voice aches of heartbreak: “When I look back never would have known/ That you could be so cold/ Like a stranger vanish like a vapor/ There’s just an echo where your heart used to be.” Of course, this is still the same Katy Perry. The power ballad “Unconditionally” is tailor-made to soundtrack a Nicholas Sparks movie. And the song would be just as schmaltzy were it not for the her roaring delivery.

This isn’t to say that Prism is missing Perry’s signature sense of humor—naughtiness with a wink. This is the pop star who filmed the music video for “Firework,” a song about loving yourself, with CGI fireworks blasting out of her boobs, after all. So when Perry gets cheeky on “Birthday,” crooning, “Let me get you in your birthday suit/ It’s time to break out the big balloons,” it’s hard not to delight in the double entendre. It’s even harder not to take pleasure in the innuendo-less “Dark Horse,” the brooding club track featuring rapper Juicy J, on which Perry promises, “Mark my words/ This love will make you levitate.”

“This Is How We Do” is to Prism what “Last Friday Night” was to Teenage Dream, an ode to “the ladies, at breakfast, in last night’s dress” and “you kids buying bottle service with your rent money.” Half-rapped, all-sassed, it’s the song you imagine a sorority blasting as the girls sip vodka and cranberry juice while getting ready for a night out, relishing its cutesy turns of phrase about “sucking really bad at Mariah Carey-oke.”

Sure, Prism packs many of the same production tricks that worked so well on Teenage Dream. But that’s smart. That “International Smile” instantly hooks is hardly a surprise—the first few bars sound almost exactly like the unshakable “Teenage Dream” chorus. And that the album can careen between that effervescent track to the more decidedly somber “Love Me” so effortlessly is a testament to the range Perry pulled off equally well on Teenage Dream. As she proves with “It Takes Two,” a sweeping ballad that allows Perry to show off a full-throated belt that so many of her more bubbly tracks mask, she’s only becoming a more talented singer, too.

Prism is brimming with radio-ready tracks, sprinkled with moments of surprising vulnerability, but it’s no major departure from the hit factory that was Teenage Dream. Given how addicting that album was—and still is—that’s something to roar about.