In the eight years since her breakthrough smash “I Kissed a Girl,” powerhouse pop diva Katy Perry has scored a remarkable nine no. 1 singles and 14 Top 10 hits over the span of four albums.
Her latest, “Witness,” will be hard-pressed to add to her tally of chart-topping singles if the performance of its first three releases can be used as a gauge. Lead single “Chained to The Rhythm,” featuring a guest spot by Bob Marley’s grandson Skip, reached no. 4, but the two subsequent releases, “Bon Appetit” and “Swish Swish,” have failed each to make the Top 40, her first two major singles to miss that mark since “I Kissed a Girl” made Perry a star.
If it seems Top 40 radio has been slow to embrace Perry’s latest effort, it’s not hard to understand why: there are very few strong melodic hooks. Musically, with its sparse electronic beats and swirls of synth, “Witness” sounds like every other pop album that’s been released in the last five years with nothing fresh or exciting to be found. That wouldn’t matter so much if the album was jammed with earworms like prior Perry hits “Firework,” “Hot n Cold,” Teenage Dream,” “Roar” and “Dark Horse,” but unfortunately there is nothing here that holds a candle to any of those pop classics. There’s little to distinguish one track from another on “Witness,” and while there are certainly tracks with hit potential (“Roulette” and the title-song in particular), overall it’s hard to envision this album performing on the same level as her prior megahits.
“Witness” is not without its high points, but they are few and far between. It opens strong with a title song that probably should have been a single by now; it’s more substantial and melodic than most anything else on the album. “Bigger Than Me” is another winner, oddly tucked away near the end of the album despite being one of the more immediate and engaging tracks.
Unfortunately the proceedings quickly lapse into formula. “Hey Hey Hey,” with its heavily autotuned vocals and cloying chorus, is a simplistic throwaway that bafflingly required five writers to create. “Roulette,” with its jittery rhythm and a spidery keyboard riff, is one of the stronger moments, but even here it’s hard to shake the feeling that this is Katy Perry-by-numbers. We’ve heard it all before and better.
“Swish Swish,” with a guest slot by the ubiquitous Nicki Minaj, is a novelty “diss-track” that ends up more silly than badass. Presumably we’re not supposed to snort and giggle at the half-whispered faux-Britney catch-phrase, “Swish, swish, bish.” More successful is “Chained to the Rhythm,” the vaguely Latin-flavored lead single, although it also pales when compared to Perry’s key singles of the past. The spark just isn’t there, and like much of the album it ends up too repetitive. “Bon Appetit” is a curious choice as second single and does little to break up the soulless monotony.
Perry has a powerful voice but one would be hard-pressed to prove it with “Witness” because nearly everything she sings is slathered with autotune that, along with the rather stale synthetic beats, gives everything an artificial, detached vibe. Any genuine heart and feeling that may have otherwise helped salvage some of the tracks has been sapped away and wiped clean. Forgettable tracks like “Pendulum,” “Tsunami” and “Deja Vu” serve only to fill slots on an album that’s too long to begin with. Even the ballads are lackluster and meandering.
At 15 tracks and nearly an hour long, “Witness” is a slog to get through. The sameness in sound and vibe is numbing. Whatever Katy Perry was trying to accomplish with her first album in four years, she has unfortunately missed the mark. There aren’t enough big pop melodies to make it a great summertime album, and one of the key ingredients in her best work — sheer exuberance and fun — is largely missing here.
Katy Perry seems to be in that stage that many young artists go through, trying to transition from fun-loving bouncy teen-friendly pop star to edgier and more serious artistry, but she doesn’t go far enough or bold enough to make it work. “Witness” is a step back for Perry, but other singers have recovered from such missteps and thrived, and Perry certainly has the talent to do so. Time will tell if “Witness” is an aberration or the start of a long-term downward trend in both sales and entertainment value.