“Witness” is the confessional album the world has been waiting for Katy Perry to make. And her admission is this: She’s indomitable and awesome. In “Hey Hey Hey,” one of the leadoff tracks, the singer positions herself like a seasoned PR pro: She’s “a hot little hurricane, ‘cause I’m feminine and soft, but I’m still a boss… Marilyn Monroe in a monster truck… I smell like a rose and I pierce like a thorn…” The message is clear: Perry may get off on playing with the archetype of the fleshy pinup girl, but underneath it all, she wants you to know she has a six-pack hard-body soul.
The braggadocio comes front-loaded as, minutes later, in the single “Swish Swish,” Perry’s indulging in tag-team temerity with guest rapper Nicki Minaj. Though this was rumored to be a mutual Taylor Swift diss track, it’s less about subtext, and more of a general superiority complex at play here: “I’m a courtside killer queen, and you will kiss the ring,” snaps Perry.
Not even three songs into “Witness,” you might be asking, wasn’t this supposed to be Perry’s socially conscious album? “It’s a new era for me … of purposeful pop,” she recently promised, referencing the trauma of the 2016 election, which influenced her new music. And you do get a hint of that awareness or humility, eventually, in “Bigger Than Me.” It’s just slightly ironic that in the album’s first single, “Chained to the Rhythm,” she took some subtle digs at a narcotized population that just wanted to dance through the election, because for most of the rest of this album, she’s pretty chained to the rhythm herself.
“Witness” is by far Perry’s most electronic album – ready-to-wear cuts for the clubs, minimal remixing required – but for the thump-thump-thump pop radio of 2017, not the ages. Producer Dr. Luke, the previous mainstay of her career, is gone, and with him the slight rock edge he brought to guitar-driven tracks like “Teenage Dream.” The only holdover from her previous hits at all, at least for more than a song, is executive producer Max Martin. He brings his B+ game to the five tracks he takes a primary producer credit on. But it’s not until the penultimate track, when Jeff Bhasker (currently a hero for his Harry Styles sonic makeover) steps in for one lone track, the infectious “Pendulum,” that your ears perk up, because it has some swing to the rhythm and, with a real bass player and choir, sounds like it was actually touched by human hands.
There is fun to be had here. If you don’t chuckle involuntarily over at least some of the over-the-top oral-sex metaphors of “Bon Apetit,” there is a good chance Perry’s dad is your pastor. (The less ludicrous female-sexuality symbolism of “Tsunami” sounds like something Prince would’ve made Vanity cut as a B-side.) The more earnest stuff that comes to dominate the second half is a mixed bag: “Save as Draft” is a fine warning not to email under the influence of obsession. But maybe she should have killed-as-draft the mawkishness of “Into Me You See,” or returned it to its apparent original author, Yoda.
What we don’t have here is the kind of obvious smash to which all of America would plainly say: Baby, you’re a firework. But the album counts at least as a sparkler — the kind you hold in your hand for 45 seconds in the summer, if not the enduring, inset kind Marilyn extolled.