Estimates vary (some less serious than others), but the archetypical pop single runs approximately three minutes long, the ideal length for radio programmers to maximize both advertising dollars and the number of songs a station can broadcast per hour. While radio edits can render even the most garrulous pop stars airwave-ready, others, like Katy Perry, are an A&R exec’s wet dream. Only one song on the standard edition of the singer’s fourth album, Prism, exceeds four minutes, and it’s an indulgence Perry and company don’t even allow themselves until the closing track.
That song, “By the Grace of God,” is also, tellingly, the album’s sole traditional ballad, a sappy Paula Cole-style statement of self-actualization that harks back to the days when a wholesome Katie Holmes and James Van Der Beek were still frolicking innocently on a beach. Prism has been billed as a darker, more serious effort, but while Perry might not be bragging about her pseudo-homosexual exploits or smelling like a minibar anymore, she largely sticks to her tried-and-true pop template, each song tailor-made for mass consumption with mixed results. The bouncy, mildly rock-inflected lead single, “Roar,” is ultimately more of a yelp than a roar, but it’s proved to be a bona fide grower, while “This Is How We Do” is a Ke$ha-grade throwdown that features possibly the dumbest lyric of the year: “Now we’re talkin’ astrology, getting’ our nails did all Japanese-y/Day-drinkin’ at the Wild Cat, suckin’ real bad at Mariah Carey-oke.”
The difference is that while the pop confections of 2010’s Teenage Dream could practically rot your teeth, songs like “Birthday,” a sexy and playful disco nugget reminiscent of early Prince, are offset by slightly more brackish fare. The standout “Dark Horse” picks up where “E.T.” left off, an inventive trap/grime/EDM mash-up that makes sly nods to Art of Noise’s “Moments In Love.” Prism is a predominantly Scandinavian affair, with Max Martin, Bloodshy, Klaus Åhlund, and Stargate at the helm for much of the album, and Perry occasionally employs her collaborators in unexpected ways: Åhlund’s contribution, “Walking on Air,” isn’t the patently Euro electro-pop he concocted for Robyn’s Body Talk, but rather, a surprising, and surprisingly soulful, throwback to ’90s deep-house, while Bloodshy’s understated “Love Me” is a far cry from the squelchy dance tunes he and frequent partner Avant crafted for, most famously, Britney Spears.
So-called maturity, of course, has its downsides, and can easily be confused with banality. The slew of midtempo pop songs that line the back half of Prism are certainly preferable to phenomenal trash like Teenage Dream’s “Peacock” and One of the Boys’s “I Kissed a Girl,” but they’re also much less fun to balk at. The pretty “Double Rainbow,” co-penned by Sia, would be easier to appreciate if it wasn’t surrounded by even more saccharine material, and even the percolating synth bassline of “This Moment,” a song that wants badly to be Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own,” is nearly rendered null by the track’s rather pedestrian songwriting.
Once poised to join a long list of novelty one-hitters, however, Perry has managed to stretch her legs in ways “Ur So Gay” couldn’t have predicted, flexing creative—or at least professional—instincts that have resulted in another collection of three-and-half-minute potential pop hits that even cynics like this one will find hard to resist. Just remember to brush and floss.