Katy Perry’s new album, Witness, dropped today (with some mild interference from Taylor Swift), and it’s pretty much what we all expected. It’s clear she’s in unfamiliar waters sonically, and despite some standout moments, Witness, just like the entire lead-up to its release, is simply trying too hard.
Case in point: this live video that corresponds with the release of Witness. It features, among other things, a live feed of Perry sleeping. Surely this is some performance art gimmick about staying woke or whatever, but good God, not even Evanescence could save this.
As we all know (because we can’t escape the PR circuit), Perry’s album is intended as a stark departure from her bubblegum pinup comfort zone, complete with vague stabs at a new political awakening. For the last couple months she’s been riding hard for a new, cool style, mostly characterized by her pulling a Miley and helping herself to the aesthetics of black culture. Perry has built her career on happy-go-lucky flamboyance and belt-y songs, so the new minimalist look, “zen” attitude, and the accompanying synth-drenched sound of Witness is weird and incredibly transparent as far as an attempt at rebranding goes.
Overall, Witness feels very Forever 21. Perry spends so much effort trying to capture what the kids are into these days that she ends up sounding like she’s having no fun at all. The album doesn’t sound like her. It sounds like Disclosure mixed with Jamie xx with a hint of Sam Smith and maybe some Com Truise. (To be fair, her sound was constructed by Jack Garratt, Duke Dumont, and Purity Ring’s Corin Roddick, so it’s not completely disingenuous.)
Perhaps songs like “Roulette” and the autotune-heavy “Love Lockdown”-esque “Mind Maze” could have been better if they were helmed by someone else, but they sound disjointed and awkward as Katy Perry songs. Also, and I know this might sound like a ridiculous critique, but there are just too many words in her songs. The lyrics are so clunky and the metaphors are too literal. Although, “Your words are like Chinese water torture” from “Déjà Vu” does accurately portray my feelings regarding the constant onslaught. Songs like “Witness” and “Bon Appétit” are so crammed full that they just don’t have room to breathe.
What makes Witness even more confounding is that it is supposed to be the big “purposeful Pop” soundtrack Perry promised as part of her rebirth as a newly woke Trump-era celebrity. Perry spent her entire pre-release tour discussing the need to stand for something and to look behind “behind the curtain.” (And, of course, transcendental meditation.) Witness does have a couple empower-y songs, but every Katy Perry album does! The fact that it also gives us “diss tracks” and the same sultry songs with thinly veiled innuendos that Perry has always done only furthers the irony of her critique of pop shallowness. It turns out Perry’s purposeful pop is just as flimsy as we assumed.
Every now and then you’ll hear oddly self-aware lyrics that make you feel like Perry is trapped by her new aesthetic and doesn’t know how to get out of it. Lyrics like, “Will I find salvation, some kind of moderation?” and “I gotta free myself and get out of my own way” from “Mind Maze” makes you wonder if Perry knows how uncomfortable and heavy-handed her recent rebranding is.
The rare good moments come when Perry gets to be herself. The cute and empowering ditty, “Hey Hey Hey,” should have definitely been released as a single, and “Pendulum,” the earnest, uplifting marching song Perry has perfected (this time with a gospel choir!) is probably the best song on the album.
If pop music was a season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Katy Perry would be the show girl in a season of couture queens. She’s the Alexis Michelle, hellbent on serving high fashion but then walking out in a loud turquoise-encrusted corset. Katy Perry doesn’t do nuanced, so don’t make her. Let the woman be loud and “Roar” or whatever, but for the love of god, just let her have some fun.
Tl;dr, listen to CTRL, SZA’s new album instead. It’s really great.