When Katy Perry sings that it’s “Never Really Over” at the top of her “Smile” album — a year-old introduction to a brand new collection — you can hear it as an expression of romantic regret, as intended, or take that title for what it really means for Perry: a vow of career imperishability. By just about anybody’s standards, she’s been on a cool streak, with seven years having transpired since the last No. 1 hit for the pop superstar who a decade ago was defined by her record-breaking streak of those. But a new Perry album is not now, and not likely soon to be, going to be received as too much less than a event… a mini-event, maybe, but still a source of hope for believers in great pop singles that the rocketship bra that is her career still has some whipped cream left to spew. (Sorry for any pop PTSD that reviving that image might set off.)
Perry finds herself perhaps doubly encumbered right now, though: There’s the pressure to prove herself anew with fresh hits, to be sure, but she also, naturally, wants to have us see her growing up on record. After all, the release of “Smile” is only the second most blessed event in her life this week, the birth a few days ago of a baby girl being Perry’s really big news of the moment, and its previous imminence surely at least a partial influence on the tone of this album. Does Perry really want to explain to young Daisy in a few years that, while she was gestating, mama was busy coming up with sequels to “Bon Apetit” or “Swish Swish” (to name the two nuttiest singles off her previous album)? She does not, and so “Smile” steers sharply away from the risible and sticks almost strictly with intended-for-mature-audiences themes, albeit with more than enough residual dance-floor throb that they could land either on the dance or AC charts (both of which are, coincidentally, less fickle than Top 40).
In other words, she’s neglecting or abandoning her comical side — or conical side? — to concentrate fully on the inspirational one that also landed her at least one all-timer. The theme of the album: Baby, you’re a firework (“baby” maybe implicitly in the literal as well as figurative sense).
“Smile” has some sparklers. But if there’s any phrase that could be operative with any review of almost any Katy Perry full-length, it’s “mixed results,” and the new album is not about to tip that balance in any significant way. She’s working with producer/co-writers who seem to have been charged with the task of making sure that any of the material that was meant to read as more emotionally revelatory in the conception phase still feels confectionary and, as they say, produced as possible. You could look at the cover imagery of Perry in clown-face and say it’s a metaphor for the singer draping her more personal thoughts in big sounds, a deliberately or inadvertently ironic approach that’s worked well for a lot of pop greats for the last 60 or 70 years. But mostly the end result feels like business as usual, with neither the hooks nor the revelations demanding deeper inspection. So what ends up being best about “Smile” is the handful of least aspirational tracks.
For Perry, going deep can mean going pep-talky, which is not inherently a bad thing, except that there’s no redeeming lines like “I am resilient, born to be brilliant,” on the song titled (obviously) “Resilient,” a self-help talk just oily enough you expect to see Stuart Smalley’s name to show up among all the Swedes co-credited with the authorship. This is the one track that reunites her with “Firework” producer Stargate, with less skyward returns; even if she does vow to “light up the room,” the song feels weirdly desultory. “Resilient” is the second track in a row on the album that uses a central flower metaphor, directly following the recent single “Daisies,” the title of which suggests delicacy. What it actually delivers is a chorus in which Perry belts “I’ll never let ‘em change me / Til they cover me in daisies, daisies, daisies” — in a vocal crescendo that ends with the final “daisies” being pretty much shouted.
These two unmemorable life lessons are followed by the worst song on the album, “Not the End of the World,” which turns staving off depression into the stuff of minor-key ad jingles. The album’s sampling nadir comes when Perry interpolates a piece of the golden oldie “Na Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” and turns it into what we think is meant to be an anti-suicide chant: “Na na na na / Na na na na / Don’t say / Goodbye.” Not to be too glib about it, but there’s something actually depressing about how disconnected from any real feeling the song comes off under the weight of its formulaic production.
And wouldn’t you know that this trio of pretty terrible songs is followed by a triad of pretty terrific ones? At exactly the halfway point, as if anticipating vinyl side-switching, “Smile” takes a turn away from that wan cheerleading to its three most unabashedly fun and upbeat tracks. The title song, “Smile” — which is not the Charlie Chaplin perennial, for anyone anticipating that — is a sudden blast of neo-disco that has some real swing on top to go along with the four-on-the-floor beat. That one’s produced by Josh Abraham and Oligee, and makes you wish they were present for more than just one track here. But the following two tracks, “Champane Problems” and “Tucked,” which are much in the same vein, come from the hands of the album’s MVP producers, Johan Carlsson and John Ryan, and are just about as strong. All three tracks feature strings or horns, funk guitar or thick bass, and have ’70s-meets-’20s pizzazz to spare. In other words, they sound a lot like outtakes from Dua Lipa’s “Future Nostalgia,” which is high praise, even if it doesn’t place Perry on the forefront of any crest.
Side 2, as it were, continues in a breezy vein with the Charlie Puth collaboration “Harleys in Hawaii,” a tropical/trap hybrid that actually tends toward the good side of ridiculous with lines like “When I hula, hula, hula / So good you’ll take me to the jeweler, jeweler, jeweler.” Perry has said that the song was actually inspired by motoring around Hawaii with Orlando Bloom, and maybe she has to say that to get a Harley sponsorship or something, but it’s somewhere around the time that she sings “Go ahead, explore the island” that you may be wondering if this song really has as much to do with motorcycles as “Little Red Corvette” did with Corvettes. If it’s as racy as it seems, kudos to her for keeping it subtler than the previous album’s “Bon Apetit” (although that’s not a high bar, considering that “WAP” is probably subtler than “Bon Apetit”).
The last couple of songs mark a return to the earnest, writ large, and not necessarily to the album’s benefit, though you can’t blame the then-mom-to-be for wanting to stick a mature landing. “Only Love” gets gospelly as Perry considers the time left and specifically name-checking mom and dad as folks to check in with before it’s too late — but “big picture” reads as “big production” in the execution by John DeBold, to the tune’s detriment. Things are actually kept pretty intimate on the largely acoustic closer, “What Makes a Woman,” but here the self-celebrating-of-the-sisterhood lyrics that let her down.
(It’s probably worth mentioning that two of the six singles Perry released in the last year aren’t on the album, or at least have been saved for deluxe editions — “Never Worn White,” the balladic ardency of which she sensed wouldn’t wear well in context on repeat listens, and “Small Talk,” a second Puth collaboration, which is a loss, since it’s awkwardness-with-an-ex lyrics are among the best Perry’s written.)
“Smile” does benefit from not having the same kind of radically split personality as 2017’s “WItness,” which had one of her career-finest singles, “Chained to the Rhythm,” counterbalanced in every way by her two worst, “Bon Apetit” and “Swish Swish.” And yet — confession time here — don’t we miss the off-the-scale craziness of those horrible songs as a side of Perry she shouldn’t completely leave behind? Maybe it’ll be back once Daisy has a few years on her and Perry isn’t feeling like the overly Robyn-redolent, dance-floor sadness of “Teary Eyes” or this album’s string of “Hang in there, girl” anthems aren’t her sole options for acting her age.
Perry was probably on the right track a year ago with “Never Really Over,” even if it only returned her to the top 20 last year and not the top 10. It stands above so many of the others on “Smile” by mixing an upbeat tone with resigned lyrics. Perry is understandably seeing a sky full of promise right now, but it’s still hard to beat a good song about fireworks that fizzled.