Who is Katy Perry? The answer was supposedly revealed back in 2017, when the singer released Witness, her fourth studio album, and made a big deal out of insisting she had left her whimsical stage personas in the past, that she was now completely, authentically herself in her image and music. The results of that transformation were lackluster, with a listless album that lacked the sparkle that made so much of her earlier catalog addictive. Pop stars seeking longevity need to maintain a certain degree of adaptability (just ask Madonna). But when Perry claimed she was now the real Perry, unvarnished and honest, it had the opposite of its intended effect, somewhat hindering her ability to evolve and distancing her from her own prior work.
That’s part of the problem with a self-professed desire to rise above your earlier identity and output: When those personas were defined, musically, by the fantastically hook-filled refrains and bubbly sing-along melodies that made Perry so successful to begin with, the attempt to strip it away in favor of the “authentic” artist mistakenly ditched some of the best parts of her work. Enter Smile, an album that seems hell-bent on showcasing the fact that Perry is no longer some carefree kid proclaiming to be a teenage dream, but rather a mature artist who has fought against depression to find a sense of resilience. (Yes, there’s a song quite literally called “Resilient.”) Engaged and having just given birth to her first child, she describes Smile as an album that “reminds me I have already survived many dark nights and walked through many valleys, and I can overcome.” Self-empowerment anthems are Perry’s specialty, so a record about battling and overcoming your personal demons seems like a logical step.
Unfortunately, there’s no “Roar” here to soundtrack that feeling. Instead, there’s an attempt to develop a more reflective and sophisticated musical style, but it ends up mired in sounds of the past. The driving stylistic impulses on Smile are late ’90s soulful pop and turn-of-the-millennium European dance music, with the occasional dash of more recent R&B sounds. It doesn’t fall into the same muddled mess of Witness, but is still far too often absent of the bombastic refrains and larger-than-life hooks that animate her best work. You can almost picture the label heads wondering, “Where are the hits?” It flows better as a cohesive whole than Witness, but it lacks the kind of earworms that could anchor the entire production.
Unsurprisingly, Perry puts her best foot forward on opener “Never Really Over,” a song that not only maintains a catchy, hummable refrain, but also ironically doubles as a sort of mission statement for the artist. Her tale of getting it together after a serious relationship falls apart works equally well as a reflection on the difficulties of attempting to reinvent yourself anew as a pop singer. It’s followed by “Cry About It Later,” a song about putting off dealing with emotional drama by partying, which is effective as an icy dance-floor bop (complete with unexpected guitar solo), but not exactly the kind of sentiment that makes for a manifesto people would rush to embrace. The lyrics suggest putting on a brave face (“I’m going to to fake it till it makes me feel good”), and after a few more songs, you start to sense a theme at work.
Those kinds of half-hearted “Hey, let’s just have a party whether we really want to or not” expressions end up being the thematic core of the album, possibly unintentionally so. “Teary Eyes” encourages the listener to “just keep on dancing with those teary eyes”; there’s “You’ll see me grow right through the cracks” on “Resilient”; and “Took those sticks and stones, showed ’em I could build a house” on “Daisies”; and so on. This mentality hits its nadir on “Not The End Of The World,” which sees the singer stoop to singing, “You can take a frown, turn it all the way around.” It all starts to sound an awful like an artist who is genuinely sick and tired of crafting party hits, but knows it’s the fundamental nature of her job. Attempts to sound carefree while still maintaining a cool reserve, like “Harleys In Hawaii”and “Champagne Problems,” don’t quite land. (Album closer “What Makes A Woman” is a solid country croon, reminiscent of Taylor Swift, but sounds out of place as a bookend to this material.)
The songs that are more celebratory, and less hand-wringing about the hard times she’s endured, end up being the best parts of the record. The title track is downright ebullient, taking a hook that wouldn’t be out of place on a Stevie Wonder album and wedding it to a joyous appreciation of life itself. The dark theme of the record still pokes through in certain moments (“Had a piece of humble pie / That ego check saved my life”), but in transitioning from endurance to thankfulness, Perry finds a renewed sense of purpose. “Daisies” is equally good, the kind of bombastic self-empowerment anthem that she used to deliver seemingly every other song. Most notably, “Tucked” is a faux-love song about the merits of disappearing into a blissful fantasy life for awhile. She plays with the idea throughout the album, but instead of the “grin through the pain” mentality that drives far too much of Smile, it’s a genuine affirmation of the merits of guilty pleasures. In other words, it embraces the best part of pop’s sugary appeal, instead of begrudgingly holding it at arm’s length.
So yes, Katy Perry has grown up, but in doing so, she’s abandoning some of the best things about “Katy Perry.” It’s telling that certain songs she released prior to Smile’s release—those with a more mischievous bent, like last year’s enjoyably snarky “Small Talk”—were left off the final product. Perry is struggling to be taken seriously, and the results tend to stray too far from the pleasures that pop music is meant to deliver. “Fun” and “serious” are not opposing concepts, and Perry needs to make peace with that. It’s okay to be whimsical and put on personas—she’s undeniably a good pop star, and those elements of her past are just as much a part of her as the sober-minded, self-help messaging of her recent work. Maybe the next step in her evolution will better reconcile those disparate parts of her artistic muse. And hey, for now? “Smile” is a total bop.