Kitschy Cliches and Happy, Honest Pop: A Review of Katy Perry’s Smile

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Katy Perry's new album is a refreshing reminder of what she is capable of, but falls short of becoming an instant classic.

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Katy Perry has come a long way since she burst on to the pop scene in 2008 with her debut hit ‘I Kissed A Girl’. Since her meteoric rise to fame, she’s really been through it. She’s faced everything from intense musical criticism to divorce, all painfully in the public eye, and with her fifth studio album Smile, she’s started to open up about the effect all this has had on her mental health over the years.

Smile picks up the pace with emotionally developed and strong lyrics, an aspect of 2017’s Witness that fell short of its own ambition. It’s a glorious testament to Perry’s incredible vocals; a fierce reminder of the technical skill that established her as pop royalty. Unfortunately, what makes Smile falter is the absence of the joyful musical spark that was omnipresent in her all-killer-no-filler early albums.

First single ‘Never Really Over’ is, however, an incredibly strong opener. Reminiscent of the youthful fun of PRISM, it’s catchy, memorable, and shows off Katy Perry’s classically flawless vocals. It’s the brand of bubblegum pop we’ve come to expect from her, without taking itself too seriously. On par with ‘Dark Horse’ or ‘Roar’, ‘Never Really Over’ stands tall as the album’s high point. Unfortunately, the rest of Smile doesn’t take the bold steps that it needs to stand the test of time – tracks like the dance-heavy ‘Teary Eyes’ show an artist trying to find her feet. These tracks are overshadowed by a superficially, flashy sound and characterised by an absence of depth.

While in the past, Katy Perry’s more musically daring songs have been her greatest triumphs, Smile thrives on more laid-back songs, like ‘Daisies’ for example. Strong vocals are paired with a sound that doesn’t try to overwhelm the listener, instead putting pop guitars and a relaxed beat in the spotlight. It also stands out as one of the more emotionally compelling songs on the album. On the other hand, ‘Cry About It Later’ and ‘Teary Eyes’ push too hard on the ‘dance away the pain’ trope that has appeared one too many times in the pop scene. Her best lyrics are and always have been those which strike a balance between inspiring and sickly sweet. There are of course treasures on this album which will make their way onto all of your late-summer playlists. Title track ‘Smile’ is a funk-flavoured pick-me-up that hits harder than the overused pop banalities of her showier tracks.

Another pleasant surprise on Smile is the adrenaline filled ‘Not the End of the World’, with it’s powerful build up and hypnotic melody. Full of twists and turns, quick changes of pace and a surprise sample, this is a personal favourite of mine from the album. ‘Not the End of The World’ is the hint of darkness that the album needs to keep it balanced, as expertly played as ‘Dark Horse’, ‘Legendary Lovers’ and ‘E.T’ have in the past.

Of course, there are clichés hiding in Smile. If you cringe at the mention of flowers growing through the cracks in the ground or the suggestion of turning a smile upside down, this might not be the album for you. But why should we shy away from this lyrical style, when it’s what made ‘Teenage Dream’ and ‘Firework’ so exquisite? Even if it suffers some forgettable tracks, Smile has the refreshing glow of a musician who is enjoying herself. Of course certain messages like “what a time to be alive” and “it’s not the end of the world” aren’t aging well, but Smile is a collection of pop-tinged positivity that we need to hear right now. While it’s not on par with the glory days of her early work, there’s no doubt that Katy Perry is on her way back to the top.

Katy Perry’s Smile is out today via Capitol Records. Check out ‘Smile’ down below.

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Records Editor 2019/2020. Second year French and Spanish student. Always going through some kind of music-based phase, frequently crying about The Cure.

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