“Katy Perry Now Going Door-to-Door Trying to Shock People” does not quite have the ring of one of the Onion’s most famous headlines, but it is an approximate description of Perry’s strategy for promoting her new album Witness. The offensive included a protracted campaign around cherry pies for her wink-wink second single “Bon Appétit,” and a clumsily confrontational performance of the Taylor Swift diss track “Swish Swish” on Saturday Night Live. It is concluding with a 72-hour livestream on YouTube that will probably get somebody somewhere in trouble at some point. Both of those singles have been extreme disappointments for one of the most commercially successful pop stars of a generation, and it’s not hard to understand why when you listen to them. In a roundabout way, though, Witness defends those choices by revealing that Perry basically didn’t leave herself anything else work with.
Even divorced from her success on the charts—nine No. 1 singles, including five straight off her 2010 album Teenage Dream—Perry had been making exponentially rewarding albums as her career progressed. Prism, released in 2013, had a handful of truly great songs, from the immaculately produced disco-pop of “Birthday” to the rap plaything “This is How We Do” and on down to non-singles like the Discovery homage “International Smile” and the believably restrained “Love Me.” Perry has always had an effort about her—even dating back to her “I Kissed a Girl” days, her persona as a bubbly but edgy pop star was lacquered on heavily. But with Prism, at least, she had gotten close to reaching an equilibrium where her music was not just advertising to you that it was fun, but actually was so.
Witness, by comparison and despite those wacky promo gambits, feels like it’s making a bid for a level of artistic seriousness—a recognition of aesthetic vision—that Perry has never really been afforded. This can be discerned most clearly by its list of collaborators, which includes Mike Will Made It, DJ Mustard, Hot Chip, the underrated British house producer Duke Dumont, and three songs by the electro-pop indie band Purity Ring. It also must be noted that this is the first Perry album to not be almost entirely co-written and produced by the Hydra of Max Martin and Dr. Luke, who were quietly something like Perry’s very own Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, though in this case the powerhouse partnership united almost exclusively for her. One can safely assume that Perry chose to stop working with Luke in the wake of the allegations made against him by Ke$ ha, and Luke himself has scarcely written a single good song in the last three years, so it’s not like he alone would have been some sort of savior. But either way, Perry embarked on an uncharted journey in the making of Witness, and the album consequently seems in search of songs it never finds.
Martin is around for nearly half of them, though, and what’s most surprising about Witness is that even his songs fall short of the standard he has consistently hit over the course of an almost unprecedented multi-decade songwriting career. Martin is a notoriously precise and mathematical songwriter who applies the rigor of science to the process of creating pop music, even going so far as to tell Lorde that her new single “Green Light” was “incorrect songwriting,” an opinion he apparently affirmed as “not an insult” but instead a mere “statement of fact.” But his work with Perry on Witness feels like that of an entirely different person. “Bon Appétit,” for instance, has a perplexingly muted chorus, one that consciously declines to leap out at you from the radio in the way that nearly every other Martin hook does. “Roulette,” meanwhile, has the kind of chorus that announces itself with all the subtlety of an explosion, but is pinned to a concept—“Wanna close my eyes and roll it with you / Like roulette”—that would get you a talking-to in a grade school English class. Similarly, the choral sweep of “Pendulum,” a song written with Jeff Bhasker, is wasted on a chorus that simply goes, “It’s a pendulum, it all comes back around / It’s a pendulum, it’s a pendulum.”
Perry has always been a lovably immature and even idiosyncratic lyricist, stuffing her songs with double entendres and pop culture references that revealed a bit about the real person behind the public-facing facade. But Witness is at once terribly underwritten in places, while also straining hard for the easy lightness of her most deftly goofy moments. Lead single “Chained to the Rhythm” is maybe the best song here, but its call to take to the dancefloor in a moment of political strife never exactly gets around the fact that the song hinges on comparing oneself to a “wasted zombie.” “Tsunami,” the Mike Will track, precedes the extended vagina-as-buffet metaphor of “Bon Appétit” by dropping the subtlety altogether, but Perry doesn’t sell stripped-away sexuality as well as she does schoolyard jokes. Then there’s the confounding “Swish Swish,” which, aside from barely making logical sense, simply unloads a clip of incredibly lame disses.
There are a few things to like here, if you’re really looking for them. “Mind Maze,” one of the Purity Ring songs, features some cool vocal manipulation that adds a new texture to Perry’s discography. “Power,” made with the songwriter Jack Garratt, is a tumbling boulder of thundering drum fills. Still, Witness is an album full of bizarre choices—both the DJ Mustard and Hot Chip-produced tracks are, for some reason, ballads—that has the inherent appeal of a spectacular failure, but that’s about it.
The question, of course, is where Perry goes from here. Unlike other pop stars, her career has never been driven by the sort of artistic muse that leads to seamless and rewarding reinventions. She is not Taylor Swift or Beyoncé. She was instead just a singer with an artillery of undeniable pop songs, but Witness argues that her stockpile is all but depleted. She will either mount a comeback for the ages, or we will soon look back and chuckle about how omnipresent she once was.