It was almost possible to feel sorry for Katy Perry that night.
Her closing slot at the MTV Video Music Awards in August was meant to be a valediction, a confirmation of her status as one of the world’s most successful pop stars. But then Miley Cyrus and her foam finger happened. Suddenly Perry, who performed her hit “Roar” dressed as a female Rocky, complete with unflattering boxer’s garb and a gold-plated spit bucket, seemed quaint, a sepia-toned antiquity from The Time Before Miley.
Cyrus has dominated the cultural conversation since, her ascendancy a threat not only to Perry’s sales position but also to her brand. Perry is a human smiley-face emoticon who has made her living selling candy-coated innuendo; Cyrus is a subtext-free musical sledgehammer who has single-handedly demolished the concept of innuendo in pop music. “Prism,” Perry’s flimsy but mostly irresistible follow-up to her 2010 behemoth “Teenage Dream,” comes just in time. Her first album since divorcing comedian Russell Brand, it’s ostensibly a darker, more thoughtful outing meant to position her as an adult artist, to put some daylight between Perry and her more inflammatory competition.
“Prism” contains the usual confections, decorated by the usual Swedish songwriting doctors (Max Martin, Klas Ahlund, et al.). It’s sprinkled with sadder-but-wiser ballads about losing love and finding yourself, and it’s accessorized with a shiny veneer of enlightenment. Partly motivated by the philosophy of New Age guru Eckhart Tolle, “Prism” is bedazzled with the type of one-size-fits-all spiritual catchphrases of someone who once read a self-help book in an airport.
“I feel my lotus bloom / Come closer,” Perry coos on the Bollywood-inspired “Legendary Lovers.” It gets worse: “Never knew I could see something so clearly / Looking through my third eye.” The album’s balance of girly pop songs and starchier odes to love and spiritual oneness feels like an authentic reflection of late-20s confusion (Perry turns 29 on Friday), a party-girl-fumbling-toward-adulthood priority shift for which she is long overdue.
Perry began her career as a Christian rock singer named Katy Hudson, but she’s spent so long as a pop singer, as an empty purveyor of sparkly objects, that nirvana seems like just another commodity for sale. It doesn’t help that most of these songs don’t address Katy Perry’s role in the Universe, but rather the Universe’s role in Katy Perry’s love life. “Spiritual” is an ode to Perry’s new boyfriend, John Mayer (“Found a nirvana / Finally”), proof that the Universe, much like many of us, appreciates a combustible tabloid romance.
The best songs on “Prism” are the ones that don’t need to be taken on faith — fluffball romps through all the trending genres Perry and her producers can stuff into their shopping carts. The Juicy J-assisted “Dark Horse” is diluted, Southern-style trap; “Roar” is assured, swaggering power pop; “This Is How We Do” is an exercise in Ke$ha-branded electro-skank; “Walking on Air” is an homage to ’90s hip-hop/house titans C+C Music Factory; “Birthday” is a deft disco throwback. As is the prerogative of an artist in the top tier, “Prism” has no filler, just hits that haven’t happened yet.
The album’s two great breakup ballads suggest Perry has been paying close attention to Taylor Swift, who may be better than anyone at writing about much-scrutinized relationships in ways that are universally relatable in message (men are cads; women are plucky and triumphant) and searingly specific in detail. Brand’s breakup with Perry, reportedly by text message, is dispatched with the couplet “You sent a text / It’s like the wind changed your mind.”
These songs are earth-scorching sympathy generators: By the end of “Ghost,” a synth-heavy slow song with Gwen Stefani-esque vocals, Brand is practically twirling his moustache as he ties Perry to the railroad tracks (“You hit send / And disappeared in front of my eyes / . . . never would have known that you could be so cold”). “By the Grace of God” is a piano ballad that ranks among Perry’s strongest, one that makes her stated desire to, as she recently told Billboard magazine, “turn into more of a Joni Mitchell” as she gets older suddenly seem more plausible. It’s her most strangely sensible and affecting song ever, one that distances her from her suddenly-more-callow-seeming peers and also from Brand, who is dismissed by the first chorus. He may have inspired the album’s quasi-spiritual framework, but ultimately he’s just another speed bump on the road to enlightenment.
Stewart is a freelance writer.