In a recent interview with Jimmy Fallon, Katy Perry described her new album Witness as a “360 degree liberation”. According to Perry, Witness centres itself on “political liberation, sexual liberation, liberation from the negative that doesn’t serve you,” which is a bold manifesto for a mainstream pop album. Given that Perry’s previous records have focused on lipstick lesbianism and candy-coated sex jams, an attempt at something more substantial feels pretty off-brand, albeit admirable. After all, this is Perry’s self-defined ‘purposeful pop’ era.
In its sound, Witness picks up where Perry’s last big hit, 2013’s ‘Dark Horse’, left off. It cold-shoulders the bubblegum pop of previous singles like ‘California Gurls’ and ‘Roar’ in favour of a darker, more modern edge. ‘Hey Hey Hey’ is a mid-tempo swanky and defiant bit of sass-pop while ‘Roulette’ opens with a glorious trumpetty synth intro that might just be the best bit on the whole album. On Witness, Perry plumps for slow-burning, quietly addictive hooks over the bombastic, in-your-face pop purity of her previous albums. At times, she opts for nuance and subtlety – relatively speaking, anyway – making for a more interesting and probably more enduring listen.
Witness credits a number of British names as collaborators. Duke Dumont, Jack Garratt and Hot Chip all serve as producers on an album that relies heavily on its slick, stylish production. Dumont’s ‘Swish Swish‘ is a particular highlight, the pulsing house beat reminiscent of the UK dance scene, Perry’s cold vocal delivery sitting nicely on the quietly sinister throb of Dumont’s rhythm. But it’s pop legend Max Martin who sits at the helm of the album’s best tracks, including singles ‘Chained To The Rhythm’ and ‘Bon Appétit‘. Martin’s tracks are the most memorable and original, the rest of the album too often straying into filler territory, particularly towards its close, with tracks such as ‘Save As Draft’ and ‘Bigger Than Me’ offering nothing new or interesting. But it’s album finale ‘Into Me You See’ that’s the real turkey here , the strained ballad a dire way to top off an otherwise pretty fun album.
In the run-up to the release of Witness, Perry talked about ‘purposeful pop’. The low-key disenfranchised, anti-consumerist message of ‘Chained To The Rhythm’ hinted at something vaguely political, but Perry doesn’t follow through. ‘Mind Maze’ hints at a reawakening, Perry having “shattered the illusion, seen behind the curtain”, though this appears to be in reference to a relationship rather than anything broader. On ‘Hey Hey Hey’, Perry sings about female empowerment, though the lyrics are clunky and heavy-handed. “Karate chopping the clichés and norms all in a dress,” doesn’t offer any new take on feminist discourse and is ridden with truisms that wouldn’t have been radical even twenty years ago.
On the whole, Perry keeps her songs personal, the album filled with references to failed relationships. Often in a reflective mood, but occasionally returning to the more provocative, larger-than-life persona that characterised her previous albums, Perry at times feels at sea, swaying between straight up radio hits while also trying to dip her toe into more left-field waters. As a result, Witness can be a frustrating, fickle listen. While there are plenty of ingredients here for a solid pop album, it lacks the commitment and direction to make one. Though Witness is not a drastic misstep for Perry, and certainly has its fair share of decent songs, its flip-flopping between sounds, styles and themes might put her plans of world domination on hold for a little while longer.