Katy Perry – Witness

Katy Perry – Witness

The Best-Selling Pop Artist’s Fifth LP is Too Safe to Be a Proper Mess and Too Boring for a Clusterfuck


Whatever you might think of Katy Perry, her longevity is undeniably impressive, as is the versatility she’s exhibited throughout her career. Think I’m giving her too much credit? Cool, yeah, but did you know about the gospel album she released as Katy Hudson in 2001 when she was just 17? So, following that, she tossed out the crucifix, grabbed a similarly shaped but more questionable implement and busted out onto the scene at 23 with the “risqué”, presumable one hit wonder “I Kissed a Girl“. Then, two short years later, she released Teenage Dream, an album that spawned five Billboard chart-topping singles (being the first artist to do so since Michael fuckin’ Jackson), making her one of the best-selling musical acts of all time and cementing, for better or worse, her popstar status.

Eye see what you did there… (Capitol Records)

From there, Perry’s career hasn’t undergone a decline so much as an inevitable evaporation, likely due to the porousness of her persona. There are just too many things she wants to be at once and too many people to try and please for any of it to remain viable over the long haul. From Christian teenager to raunchy bad girl, cheeky pin-up to poor man’s Gaga and then, basically, a children’s entertainer, her conflicting impulses have rendered her music and image pretty ineffectual.

It’s not that much of a shock, then, to learn that her latest album Witness presents Perry as a brooding, synthpop artiste with (I think?!) something of a socially conscious bent. Still, it’s a shame how much her depleted energy and waning elasticity has resulted in such a goddamn lifeless, sonically wallowing snooze of a release. How to describe the overall sound of this album? You’ve heard the expression, “Still waters run deep”? Well deep waters run fuckin’ still, is the long and short of it. At no time in recent memory has a grand-standing LP by a massive pop artist so successfully tripped over its own dick trying to prove its seriousness, only managing to seem completely without humour, pomp or any sort of pulse in the process.

The default mode of this album – courtesy of the spacious percussion, vocals warped within an inch of their lives, grating antiseptic dancefloor synths and a whirlpool of miserable drones – is “murky”. If we’re lucky, sometimes an unexpected addition (such as with the golden, strangely alluring plucked guitar strings on the bridge of “Dance With the Devil”) elevates this to “cautiously sullen”. For the most part though, it’s a dreary affair, one that Perry’s voice – though strong and enchanting as ever – does nothing to alleviate, even on the hooks where she’s allowed to belt and let loose. That’s not to say that the music is always turgidly slow or miserable, just that the entire vibe Witness cultivates is one of dejection, of fatigue and a desperate attempt to hide the seams that are beginning to show. Even when it soars, Witness seems to do so beneath a grey sky, whilst the static in the air doesn’t layer the sonic tension so much as simply dampen the space between the notes til it all sounds equivocal and tragic.

Stylistically, it’s heavy on the sort of beats and signifiers that indicate a particular affinity for downbeat hip hop and radio-friendly EDM, albeit while completely negating the last three years of either. Recently released single “Swish Swish” consists of A$AP Rocky-pitched vocals, fingersnaps, squeals, stadium piano chords and a Nicki Minaj feature, and I swear to God that sentence didn’t somehow time-jump from 2014 to this moment. Elsewhere, on “Power” the buzzsaw bass, glitchy sax and haunted coos on the verses give way to an explosion of noise so abrupt, unrestrained and poorly mixed it might colourblind anyone with synesthesia. In this regard, Witness mimics the predictable rise and fall of most electronic music, with little to none of the panache or canny innovation that distinguishes the genre at its best. Honestly, the overall sound design is so compressed and yet freewheeling and unbalanced that prolific hitmaker Max Martin – who executive produced Witness alongside Perry – is either losing his dynamic ear or simply didn’t care enough to notice how anodyne and shallow this all sounds.

And, in case you were wondering about the lyrics on this thing, my suggestion would be that if you know anyone who gets any of the lines from this album tattooed on them, stop knowing that person. If I wanted to accurately convey how panoramically ridiculous, how flaming-cattle-prod-to-the-anus unpleasant some of the things Perry sings on this album are, I’d honestly just transcribe every lyric on this thing and be done with it. However, it needs to be said that – on such a frequently inconsequential release – sometimes the cringe-inducing stupidity of these words provides something like a perverse form of entertainment. It’s like watching Tommy Wiseau recite Shakespeare: you know in your soul it might be the wrongest thing that’s ever happened, but that only adds layers of complexity to your enjoyment of it.

Let’s ease our way in, shall we? On the title track, there’s a fairly trite chorus (“We’re all just looking for connection, yeah, we all want to be seen”) but more remarkable is the perplexing pre-chorus: “I ain’t got the time, not to get it right”. Am I not crazy or isn’t that not making a lot of sense, does it? Then there’s the many ways Perry sees herself on “Hey Hey Hey”: “A babydoll with a briefcase” (what?), “Marilyn Monroe in a monster truck” (whaaaaAAAAAA–?!). Later on “Save As Draft”, on what I have to believe was the most slaved-over line of the entire album, she drops the insurmountably atomic shitstorm of, “I don’t fuck with change, but lately I’ve been flipping coins a lot” (and, while we’re on it, every time Perry says “fuck” on this album it smacks of a try-hard pre-teen trying to act cool for the grown-ups). Finally, I offer without comment or annotation this actual excerpt from “Swish Swish”:

“A tiger
Don’t lose no sleep
Don’t need opinions
From a shellfish or a sheep”

But look, if Witness manages anything, it’s the retroactive rejuvenation of one song in real time. That song is “Chained to the Rhythm” which, on its own, is a gaudy and unremarkable anthem with an inane beat that sounds like a Ministry of Sound outtake (from what year? Does it fucking matter?). However, like a Moro bar slowly sinking into a pool of fresh piglet shit, “Chained to the Rhythm”‘s limited pleasures are heightened by its fetid surroundings. It manages, at least in this context, to be something of a beacon, something moving amongst the dead. It’s such a standout that you can hardly blame Perry for attempting to recapture the same jaunty spark near the end of the album on “Pendulum“, no matter how lazily obvious it stands as a direct copy of the original.

So, clearly what’s missing here – which might, admittedly, be unfair to expect from Perry at this point in her career – is the fun inherent to so much of her earlier material. There’s none of the sunny tongue-in-cheek that buoyed “California Gurls“, the asinine but still giddy triumph of “Roar” or even the faux-weird theatricality of “E.T.“. Witness is a swampy, impotent bore of an album that only contributes to the narrative that Perry’s crowning achievement as an artist and commercial success will forever be “Teenage Dream“. Indeed, as she keeps morphing before our eyes into lesser versions of her past glory, many might long for the days when Katy would wail, “Don’t ever look back”, and we actually didn’t want to.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *