Exactly ten years ago, Katy Perry announced her arrival as a pop megastar with Teenage Dream. The album received mixed critical reviews on release but would go on to be nominated for seven Grammy Awards. Moreover, the album spawned five US number one singles, the second in history to achieve this honour, after Michael Jackson’s Bad and the first by a woman. With infectious pop music like ‘Fireworks’, ‘California Gurls’ and ‘Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F) this was an album to make even the detractors of the pop music genre smile.
Ten years later, Perry wants to make us smile again with a return to pure pop. With its harlequin inspired cover and cheesy grin lettering, Smile brings us twelve tracks, free of collaborations. Smile comes three years after the critically and commercially unsuccessful Witness and a well-documented struggle with mental health. Perry states in the release accompanying the album: “This record is a representation that I overcame [the pain] and got to the other side”. The question is whether the redemptive journey for Perry as an artist translates into smiles for the listener.
Smile reminds me of Perry’s ‘Dark Horse’ single, particularly with tracks ‘Resilient’ and ‘Not the End of the World’, but overall the tone is more downbeat than Teenage Dream. After the troubled journey Perry has been on, the autobiographical optimism of ‘Resilient’ with lyrics such as “And I know the higher I climb / The harder the wind blows” is welcome. I just wanted more passion. I wanted Katy Perry to ‘Roar’ how resilient she is.
There are moments of joyous pop. The opener ‘Never Really Over’ sets such a positive tone. I challenge anyone not to sing along with the anthemic chorus “Two years, and just like that / My head still takes me back..”. At 35, you wouldn’t expect Perry to be writing about plastic bags and belting out bubble-gum pop but this is the ‘Firework’ equivalent and it feels good. It makes you smile. Unfortunately, this is track one and the momentum is never regained.
‘Daises’ is inoffensive passable pop, made more poignant given that Perry and Orlando Bloom had their first child, Daisy, the day before the album was released. ‘Smile’ starts with a ‘Birthday’-eque vibe but soon deviates into formulaic pop. Unfortunately, this is an album that will have you saying “Alexa/Siri/Google skip”. ‘Teary Eyes’, ‘Champagne Problems’ and ‘Harleys in Hawaii’ all fall into that category.
That’s not to say there aren’t any moments of redemption. Being a huge fan of Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia I liked ‘Tucked’. The retro disco vibe feels very 2020 and Perry sounds strong with all the “na na na’s” having an infectious dance floor magnetism. The standout is ‘Only Love’. This gospel influenced ballad is a love letter to life if Perry had one day left on Earth. The vocals and the arrangement make this a beautiful track, made far more powerful given Perry’s new status as a mother. Ironically, the most downbeat track was the most uplifting and the one to make me smile.
The ghost of Teenage Dream looms large over this album. The moments of joy are short-lived amongst the painting-by-numbers pop. Smile, as a body of music, does not make me grin. The context of its arrival as part of Perry’s journey to happiness and the fact it followed the birth of her child does. Hopefully Smile is the stepping stone to a return to form.
Words by Andrew Butcher
Check out Andrew’s blog here.
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