“Gotta say it’s really been a while, but now I got back that smile.”
Katy Perry is many things. Subtle is not one of them.
As a result, the heavy-handed “sad clown” imagery of her fifth studio album, Smile, out on Friday (August 28), conveys much of the story without much else needed to be said or sang – but she does plenty of that, too.
Katy Perry is the Weird Al of Pop™: cartoonish, oft-childish, over-the-top, humor-pop. Whipped cream in the boobs! Fireworks…also in the boobs! Peacock! Left shark! Dabbing on SNL with Migos! It’s always led to a laugh, so it’s no surprise that Katy identifies with the clown. And, guess what? Clowns have feelings, too.
Following lukewarm reception to her 2017 studio album Witness (and subsequent gleeful Stan Twitter dragging), the diminishing returns for Katy, a previously untouchable entertainer in the mainstream pop game for over a decade, eventually came at a cost to her mental health. She struggled with clinical depression, which she’s been candid about in recent months.
Privately, she was also going through a split and reconciliation with her now-fiancé, Orlando Bloom. Then came a pandemic. She also got pregnant, which seemingly stretched on for years, until just a few days before the release of Smile. (Welcome to the world, Daisy Dove Bloom.)
That’s a lot of extreme emotional highs and lows for anybody, let alone someone with child, with millions of fans, coming off of a less-than-favored album campaign.
But as she proved throughout the seemingly endless Smile promotional campaign in the past months, Katy is fiercely determined, possessing near-superhuman strength to rise to the occasion and pull out all the stops of a major pop campaign in quarantine, backwards and in heels, with a baby bump and a clown nose. For that alone, she deserves her flowers. (Daises, presumably.) The music itself? Well…
“This record (Smile) is full of hopefulness and resilience and joy because it was made during a dark time when I was clinically depressed because I had a change in my career. The last record didn’t necessarily meet my expectations,” she told Howard Stern.
“It got me out of this loop of being a really desperate, thirsty pop star that felt like they had to be No. 1 all the time. Now I feel like I can create and be more dimensional as an artist and also as a human being.”
Nearly half of Smile (at least, the Fan Edition) was already released by the time it fully arrived, including last year’s “Never Really Over,” a Top 20 hit, her Top 40 hit “Daisies,” “Small Talk,” which topped out at No. 81, plus “Harleys in Hawaii,” “Never Worn White” and title track “Smile,” both of which missed the Billboard Hot 100.
Chart talk is boring and irrelevant in most people’s worlds, but it’s vital in understanding Katy’s self-described “thirst”: at one point in time, Katy Perry was breaking records as the first woman, and only the second artist after Michael Jackson, to notch five number-one singles from one album. Fame is a fickle food.
“Had a piece of humble pie / That ego check saved my life / Now I got a smile like Lionel Richie / Big and bright, need shades just to see me,” Katy tells us on her bright and breezy, uplifting shoe commercial-friendly title track, taking us on the journey from the darkness into recovery mode in the form of the Smile sessions – with a wink to her American Idol gig by calling out her co-star at the judges’ table.
As opposed to some of the more escapist pop of her past, Smile is overwhelmingly a Something More Personal kind of album. And for those who’ve found the social media commentary about her career particularly brutal in recent years, Katy has no qualms about jumping in and calling out her career dip herself throughout Smile.
“Flipping off the flop, now I just enjoy the ride,” she declares on “Not the End of the World,” a trap-tinged track that interpolates “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye,” and vaguely recalls her massive, legally contested 2013 hit, “Dark Horse.”
“Daisies,” similarly, finds Katy emerging from the depths of sadness, fighting back against the haters, the doubters, and the voices within her own head.
“They told me I was out there, tried to knock me down / Took those sticks and stones, showed ’em I could build a house,” she declares on the propulsive, guitar-led chorus, “I’ll never let ’em change me / ‘Til they cover me in daisies, daisies, daisies!”
The overarching theme of the album is resilience. There’s…literally a song called “Resilient,” in fact, a StarGate co-produced empowerment anthem: “Look at me now, look at me now, I’m in full bloom,” she declares. (The use of “Bloom” here is, of course, no accident.)
Her rocky romance with Orlando isn’t off the table either: “Make-ups to the breakups / Times we coulda gave up / We put the dirty work in,” she celebrates on the throbbing, Johan Carlsson-produced “Champagne Problems,” which bursts with a funky, vaguely disco-fied energy.
As danceable as much of the production on Smile is, the lyrics largely stay focused on triumphing through the tough times. “Tucked” is a bouncy and joyous exception, which feels like a slight, summery homage to an earlier, more carefree version of Katy, who was waking up in Vegas, letting loose in a fantasy fling with a sweet escape.
The sadness simply gets no chance to creep past the positivity force-field that is Smile. The album’s best moments arrive right at the top of the record, as she’s dancing and delaying the hurt: the Sasha Sloan co-penned “Cry About It Later,” an ode to going out and postponing the tears, is a pulsating earworm, as is follow-up “Teary Eyes,” a depression-on-the-dance-floor ode that effectively serves as this album’s “Walking On Air”-gone-emo.
“Have you ever lied and just replied ‘I’m fine’? / ‘Cause I can see you’ve lost, lost the light in your life,” she declares. The song’s final, encouraging cries of “Keep on dancing!” are among the most thrilling moments on the album – if only it wasn’t so short-lived.
“I swear sometimes I hear myself talking, getting mad / Take shit so personal, like it really matters,” she reflects on “Only Love,” a #gratitude anthem which veers towards the worship territory of her earliest days (plus the added perspective of much therapy, clearly), as she considers the last day of her life, apologizes to her mother, writes a letter to her father, and lets the light in yet again: “Let me leave this world with the hate behind me, and take the love instead / Give me only love.”
The acoustic-leaning “What Makes a Woman” rounds out her Smile, an introspective ode to – if you can guess – being a woman.
“I feel most beautiful doing what the fuck I want,” she snarls, flirting with just the slightest hint of an edge within an otherwise saccharine musical experience.
“There it is, Kathryn,” she sighs to herself in the final seconds, sounding relieved.
It’s wonderful to see and hear that Katy is smiling again, truly. Smile is not, however, a breakthrough Ray of Light sort of moment for Katy. Nor does it soar to the scream-sing-along heights of the now decade-old Teenage Dream – or Prism, really. It is full of lightness and levity, bursting at the seams with self-empowerment clichés and her signature clownery (“When I hula-hula, hula so good, you’ll take me to the jeweler-jeweler”), but it doesn’t ever aspire to be more than perfectly adequate, positive, contemporary pop.
Ever since the moment she went goth girl and burned that Teenage Dream wig years ago, there’s always been a lingering hope for a different kind of record somewhere inside of Katy – one that isn’t afraid to let the feelings be more fully fleshed out, as “Circle the Drain” implied a decade ago, which doesn’t just ward off unsavory emotions with unrelenting positivity and a pie to the face. Smile is simply not that.
A perfectly fine, personal pop album with a few, fleeting above-average moments is no crime committed, nor it doesn’t mean it’s…really…over. But if Katy truly feels as free as she says to become more “dimensional” post-chart powerhouse, Smile is not exactly overwhelming evidence of this exercise in artistic exploration.
Perhaps on the next go-around, there’ll be less pushing daisies, and more pushing her own musical boundaries.
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Photo credit: Christine Hahn