Thursday, October 24, 2013

Track by Track: PRISM

Year: 2013
Artist: Katy Perry
Label: Capitol

Welcome to my new feature where I break down recently released albums track by track! I'm gonna review each song on Katy Perry's new album individually and rank them as well. Let's try this out. (And if you like it, remember ARTPOP comes this November!)

Track 1: "Roar"

Just like all lead singles on a pop album where the artist is trying to go in a new direction, "Roar" plays it very safe. It's mainly just a diluted retread of the themes in "Firework" that, while catchy and bouncy, is rather unadventurous.

Best Line: "I stood for nothing / So I fell for everything"

Track 2: "Legendary Lovers"

Now that's more like it! "Legendary Lovers" is different from anything Katy has done before, taking its cues from Indian musical stylings with heavy sitar, syncopated rhythm, and lyrical references galore to cultural touchstones like third eyes, lotus blossoms, and karma. She speed talks her way into a chorus that soars over dark hip hop fusion beats. Her breathy falsetto voice isn't quite unleashed to its full potential yet but reveals an early glimpse of what she's trained it to do since Teenage Dream.

Best Line: "Take me down to the river / Underneath the blood orange sun / Say my name like a scripture / Keep my heart beating like a drum"

Track 3: "Birthday"

"Birthday" occupies something of a middle ground between Katy's New Direction vision and standard Top 40 pop. Sexy birthday metaphors aren't exactly breaking new ground, but luckily she mostly reigns it in to just a few lines (one of them is absolutely stellar piece of bubblegum pop smut). It's peppy and fun with a funky groove that makes it sound something like a cross between Karmin and Earth, Wind, & Fire.

Best Line: "So let me get you in your birthday suit / It's time to bring out the big balloons"

Track 4: "Walking On Air"

Something like what EDM would sound like if it was invented in the 70's. Another fun and bouncy track, "Walking On Air" draws its strength from a gospel charged closing chorus that stems from Katy's roots in Christian music in a totally natural and enervating way. Let's keep our fingers crossed that she keeps it this light on her more obviously religious songs down the road.

Best Line: "You're reading me like erotica / Boy, you make me feel exotic, yeah"


Track 5: "Unconditionally"

Here we are at Prism's first ballad! "Unconditionally" gives us a chance to sit back and see how far Katy has come from the young vixen who kissed a girl and liked it. She's seen a few heartbreaks, sang a few love songs, shot whipped cream out of a few bras, and now she's ready to show off her new mature voice. This song has heart, and I can totally see teen girls belting this with their friends at karaoke bars twenty years from now.

Best Line: "Acceptance is the key to be / To be truly free / Will you do the same for me?"

Track 6: "Dark Horse (feat. Juicy J)"

"Dark Horse" is Katy's most deviant track yet with a revolving hip hop club beat, husky vocals, and a hazy atmosphere driven by percussive snaps. I welcome Katy trying something new and the hippity hoppity is certainly that, but the song suffers from a weak drop (an anemic and tinny thing that does not maintain the energy of its buildup at all) and a truly atrocious guest appearance by Juicy J, a studio-inserted guest rapper who chimes in with such instant classic lines as "Shawty's heart was on steroids cuz her love is so strong" and "She can be my Sleeping Beauty, I'm gon' put her in a coma". I don't even know what he's trying to say with that last one. I don't think I want to.

Best Line: "Once you're mine / There's no going back"

Track 7: "This Is How We Do"

"This Is How We Do" is another hip hop influenced song that takes itself much less seriously than "Dark Horse" and fares way better for having done so. Katy sing talks her way through a dynamic paean to getting ratchet. It's hard not to compare it to early Ke$ha, but Katy makes it her own. With its unabashed frivolity, this song is great for driving down the freeway with the top down.

Best Line: "Day drinking at the Wildcats / Sucking real bad at Mariah karaoke"

Track 8: "International Smile"

"International Smile" is spunky, but it's rather shallow and the least daring song on the album so far. There's a cool dubstep breakdown before the last chorus that would redeem the song exponentially if it weren't a nearly exact copy of the sizzling and invigorating wubs from Ke$ha's "Thinking Of You." Nevertheless, it's impossible not to dance along. 

Best Line: "She's got that je ne sais quoi / You know it"


Track 9: "Ghost"

I was hoping this would be a "banging a ghost" song along the lines of "E.T." or Ke$ha's "Supernatural," but instead it's just a Russell Brand song. This is the first song obviously informed by her divorce (check out the best line - definitely RB) which is odd because I was expecting a lot more heartbreak out of this album. This song is basically a Prismified "Wide Awake" or "The One That Got Away" with a clacking drum beat, a sedate verse, and an admittedly good chorus that doesn't do anything to raise it above its predecessors.

Best Line: "You sent a text / It's like the wind changed your mind"

Track 10: "Love Me"

A down tempo self-empowerment anthem that's raw and sweet, "Love Me" strips away the layers of pomp and metaphor from the likes of "Firework," "Pearl," and "Roar" to tell her story of finding herself in the midst of heartbreak. This second half of the album so far is a lot more Russell Brandified, which is to its credit. "Ghost" didn't really do it for me, but Katy harnesses her power in this song and her straightforward but heartfelt lyrics float through a universe of electro-drums, soft synths, and the more organic side of computer instrumentation and vocal manipulation.

Best Line: "I lost myself / In fear of losing you"

Track 11: "This Moment"

The 80's are back, folks! Opening with a chuckling bass and a breezy synth drumset, this song calls to mind Depeche Mode or the Human League in a very good way (at least for me). Katy synthesizes the modern trend of nihilistic YOLO-ing prevalent in songs like "Give Me Everything," "Feel This Moment," and "Die Young" with a pronounced retro feel. Katy's voice does acrobatics above a track that sweeps you away, shifting subtly from 80's electrobeats to an instrumental quotation of "Teenage Dream" and back, subliminally reminding us of just how far Katy has come better than any track on the decidedly more mature Prism has up to this point.

Best Line: "And we pop what is prescribed / If it gets us first prize"

Track 12: "Double Rainbow"

Unfortunately, "Double Rainbow" really isn't as fun as its title would suggest. It's just a plodding love song that doesn't land the camp value inherent in its title and pales in the wake of the magnificent "This Moment." This song makes the same missteps as "Roar," dropping lyrical clich├ęs like breadcrumbs. The chorus overpowers the lackluster verses, much like Ke$ha's "Love Into the Light," but what makes that song a masterpiece is not present here at all.

Best Line: "The two of us together make everything glitter"


Track 13: "By The Grace Of God"

Katy's voice is tremendous, but she can't lift this unimaginative ballad up on vocal strength alone. The longest song on the album at four and a half minutes, this overtly religious self-empowerment/post-divorce piano track is too overstuffed to definitively decide what it wants to be. It lacks the spiritual joy of the likes of "Walking On Air" and is due to alienate most of her secular fanbase. It's absolutely not a fault that she's accessing her religion for a personal song, but it just doesn't resonate. It's too swallowed by everything else in the song.

Best Line: "We were living on a fault line / And I felt the fault was all mine"

Track 14: "Spiritual" (Bonus Track)

It's trying to be "Like a Prayer" but it sounds more like the closing credits song to a Twilight movie. Like all the songs on Prism, "Spiritual" is objectively good, but it just can't compare with the likes of "This Moment" or "Walking On Air." It definitely feels like a bonus track.

Best Line: "Your electric lips have got me speaking in tongues"

Track 15: "It Takes Two" (Bonus Track)

A heartfelt apology song about learning that you're not always the protagonist in your story of love. Again, Katy shows off her more mature voice both in songwriting and belting. But still, it just doesn't have that spark that the main album has. Another overlong and unimpressive bonus track.

Best Line: "Is Mercury in retrograde / Or is that the excuse I've always made"

Track 16: "Choose Your Battles" (Bonus Track)

This is what a bonus track should be! Perhaps not as polished as the main album but delightful and experimental. Katy shifts rapidly between her sing talking and sinewy trills within the verse itself before slamming into a house inspired chorus underlaid with crashing war drums and grinding dubstep blasts. A great slow jam.

Best Line: "You are my hurt locker lover / Keep me walking on a wire"


Overall: Prism is a solid effort. Katy has taken a big leap away from the pervasive Top 40 jams of Teenage Dream, and she's found herself in unfamiliar territory. She fumbles now and then as she tweaks her sound to fit her more mature voice and worldview but this album feels like an important stepping stone to an out and out experiential pop masterpiece of a fourth album.

She's taking a lot of pages out of Ke$ha's songbook, which is absolutely not a detraction considering that Warrior is possibly the most experimental and exciting pop album of 2012. Although her lyrics occasionally leave something to be desired, her exploratory forays into EDM, world music, retro, and hip hop (mostly in the first half of the album) are generally her strongest tracks. 

Each song is great, but the back half suffers somewhat from a lack of brevity despite stronger themes. All in all, it's a stellar third album so any complaints I may have are just minor nitpicks but I need something to write about, don't I?

You go Katy. I can't wait for whatever's on the horizon. 


Ranking:

# 16 "By The Grace Of God"
# 15 "Double Rainbow"
# 14 "Spiritual"
# 13 "It Takes Two"
# 12 "Ghost"
# 11 "Choose Your Battles"
# 10 "Dark Horse (feat. Juicy J)"
# 9 "Roar"
# 8 "Unconditionally"
# 7 "International Smile"
# 6 "This Is How We Do"
# 5 "Love Me"
# 4 "Walking On Air"
# 3 "Birthday"
# 2 "This Moment"
# 1 "Legendary Lovers"

Word Count: 1846

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