Katy Perry’s fourth studio album is a force to be reckoned with because it is, more to the point, a force of reckoning. A collaboration between producers near and far, it balances an intercontinental seesaw—Santa Barbara on one end, Stockholm the other—atop a fulcrum of self-reflection, personal growth, and, above all, pleasure. The latter has, of course, run a puce thread through Katy’s stylings since her reinvention effort One of the Boys (released in 2008 as her major-label debut), for which she weighed plusses and minuses on a no-less-atmospheric scale. To be sure, Katy reigns in atmosphere, donning sonic personas as a supermodel goes through outfits: they might touch her skin for one mere trip down the runway, but damned if she isn’t going to strut the hell out of those outfits before they hit the outlet bins.
That said, writing Katy off as an ephemeral pop princess unfairly tattoos her creative spirit, which on Prism grabs the wheel and swerves to and fro until no passengers remain, leaving her to drive off into the sunset by her lonesome. Behind the glitter of her popular guise beats the drum of an artist whose personal and public frames have aligned over time, so that by this point in her career we may divine each album as the next card in a tarot spread. In this vein, Prism follows Katy’s traumatic—if only for being scarred by all the tabloid scrutiny—divorce from iconoclast Russell Brand. Broken but not beaten, she took crisis as opportunity and, in her own words, “let the light in.” It’s a mantra that reverberates not only through the sounds, but even before their embrace through the blinding cover portrait, in which Katy holds her own against a glare that threatens to, but never will, swallow her.
As if to underscore the album’s symbolic title, the production and engineering of Prism slip hand-in-glove toward rapturous finish. With the practiced skills of Hollywood film editors, Katy and her team offer a gift basket of trim, radio-ready tunes. Due to their compact duration (only the last track exceeds four minutes), these neo-diaristic morsels manifest the “less is more” principle with equal parts confidence and vulnerability.
American producer Dr. Luke reunites with the singer on lead single “Roar,” combining creative energies with Swedish counterpart Max Martin. The arrangement’s echoing hups add a sense of grandeur emphasized by the jungle fantasy of the promo video:
(“Roar,” dirs. Grady Hall and Mark Kudsi)
A dainty piano foundation antes up a playful deception common to every upbeat number that follows and betrays nothing of the voluptuousness about to ensue. Of that voluptuousness the hormonally aware viewer is treated to oodles in said video, but the astute listener exponentially so in the studio-honed infrastructure that supports it. Here is a meta-statement fleshed to bursting, as potent as Katy’s dramatization of the titular act. Accentuating vocals in the landing pave some of the album’s most glittering runways, further yielding one of its more significant lyrics: “I went from zero / To my own hero.” Significant because every hero(ine) needs a weakness, and Katy’s is an all-consuming, troubling and beautiful romance.
Hence her dip into the tropical waters of “Legendary Lovers.” Harnessed by a light Bhangra beat of looped sitar and tabla, Katy delights in her exploration of karma and retribution. Yet even with the pop-philosophical bent and evocative lines like “I never knew I could see something so clearly looking through my third eye,” this song is rooted in the material world and in the conductivity of human touch. It is an effective bid for perseverance, a reformation of jouissance expressible by no other vocabulary than the internal beauties of its wordless accents. In them resides the true meaning of Katy’s sensual scripture: the word made flesh through consummation. And that instrumental break? Golden.
Ever attentive to the aural cravings of her fans, Katy carries over some of the raucousness of 2010’s Teenage Dream with piquancy and nakedness. Witness “Birthday.” Imagined as a lost track from Mariah Carey’s first album (a stylistic nod clearest in the undulating lines of the chorus), it brims with assured innuendos (“So let me get you in your birthday suit / It’s time to bring out the big balloons”) that bring a lover to his knees in celebration of a feminine sublime. Let us not dismiss, then, this song as a sexually charged piñata just waiting to be smacked, for underneath it all is a promise of total fulfillment: “So make a wish / I’ll make it like your birthday every day.” The realization of this wish comes via the boosting horn arrangement by Lenny Pickett and the Saturday Night Live band, which punctuates (but never punctures) the grammar of its unfolding.
On the topic of SNL, one must note Katy’s throwback performance of “Walking On Air” (aired October 12, 2013) as musical guest on the long-running sketch comedy show’s stage, which found her in a state of confident refresh (to that end, she also performed “Roar”). On record, the contrasts of this deep house dish are all the more gorgeous for their starkness. One moment Katy lays down the sultry (“You read me like erotica / Boy, you make me feel exotic, yeah”), while another she hyperbolizes (“Heaven is jealous of our love / Angels are crying from up above”) to the point of smiling. Such juxtapositions of imagery lend disco-ball frenzy to every undercurrent, danceable to the last drop.
From sex to fashion, and with no loss of swag, two cuts run deepest in the shallow skin of vanity. “This Is How We Do” waxes smartly of designer obsessions and expressive origami. Despite the club veneer, a certain fatigue lingers not far behind. Tongue-in-cheek bons mots like “Getting our nails did all Japanese-y” and “Sucking real bad at Mariah Carey-oke” tell half the story, neglecting but implying the aftermath of all this capitalist intrigue. Katy even flirts with the beat, goading its return after a premature fade: an addict’s order.
(“This Is How We Do,” dir. Joel Kefali)
“International Smile,” dedicated to DJ and friend Mia Moretti, plays more genuinely, touting the empowerment of self-imaging. Following a trail of stardust and vocoder bliss, it titillates with such gems as “’Cause she’s a little bit of Yoko / And she’s a little bit of ‘Oh no,’” leaving us with a tightly sprung ode to friendship across boundaries.
Also crossing boundaries is “Unconditionally,” Katy’s personal favorite of the album’s lucky thirteen. This deeply felt anthem is as much for hapless singles as for fated partners, although one can’t help but read, in light of her travails, her bid to “Open your heart and just let it begin” as being directed more at herself than anyone else:
(“Unconditionally,” dir. Brent Bonacorso)
On the whole, Prism is an exercise in power play, but not always so extroverted. The quintessential expression of femme shine comes, ironically enough, in the form of “Dark Horse,” which bears the stamp of Three 6 Mafia rapper Juicy J, the album’s only featured guest. Combining elements of trap and a touch of chopped and screwed, it is lyrically the most independent in the refrain: “So you wanna play with magic / Boy you should know what you’re fallin’ for / Baby, do you dare to do this / ’Cause I’m coming atcha like a dark horse.” But then, something unfortunate happens. What began as a haunting chemical reaction of grrl power poofs the moment Juicy J opens his mouth: “She’s a beast / I call her Karma / She’ll eat your heart out / Like Jeffrey Dahmer.” Hold up, now. Let’s dissect this owl pellet, shall we? To assert Katy’s beastliness is one thing. She does so herself in “Roar.” But to assert primal nature as a sign of her karmic evils is quite another. There’s anger in those words, a lashing out against womanhood that sits acidly with this listener. One wonders, too, whether name dropping one of history’s most notorious murderers gets us to a productive place. The Dahmer theme continues when J raps, “She’s sweet as pie, but if you break her heart / She’ll turn cold as a freezer,” thus linking femininity to frigidity when the promise of sexual reciprocation is nullified (compare this to Katy’s honest assertion of coldness in “Ghost”). Of course, it’s just a song and stands firm despite this sour contribution, but it nearly undermines so much of what the album has built up thus far.
At least that’s what I thought when hearing “Dark Horse” for the first time. With repeated listens, I’ve concluded that the rap works in the song’s favor, emphasizing as it does the position of strength from which Katy sings by virtue of its shallow pride. Whether intentional or not, Katy escapes its objectifying brush unpainted and all the stronger for it. Judge for yourself:
(“Dark Horse,” dir. Mathew Cullen)
“Ghost” is Katy’s breakup anthem du jour. It tells the story of her divorce from Brand, prompted by the latter’s text message. Rather than obsess over words on a screen, she chooses to dwell for a spell in their afterlife before pulling herself back down to earth. So begins the album’s somber final act, which pulses through the desperation of “Love Me” without foothold (“Sometimes I wish my skin was a costume / That I could just unzip and strip”), tries its best to live in “This Moment” without falling (“Tomorrow is unspoken,” she cries repeatedly), and finds itself standing before a “Double Rainbow” without fear. Here the ultimate choice of Prism and the surest sign of its maturity takes shape. “They say one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” Katy avers. “So if it’s up to me I’m gonna keep you forever.” Rather than wallow in the ruins of depression, she has chosen to rebuild them into something unmistakably her own.
All roads lead to “By The Grace Of God,” which ends the album despite being the first of its tracks to be laid down. It takes a good, long look in the mirror and stock of everything left behind. The title alone reflects Katy’s Pentacostal roots and reminds us that, no matter the breakups down below, nothing surpasses love from above.
Katy has been called a global phenomenon, but really her phenomenon is so intimate that only the heart can contain it. Yet because the heart is a fickle shelter, let us not be deceived in thinking that she is grown up and done with it. Like the rest of us, Katy is a “work in progress,” as she herself revealed in a 2013 interview for Australian television. Her full potential is still hibernating, purring to the rhythms of life in all its ups and downs until such time as it is ready to unleash its loudest roar yet.