Katy Perry's "Prism" is a shimmering, dynamic, heavy-duty modern pop album that's as unapologetically bent on moving bodies as it is on moving units. Longer by one song than her mega-selling 2010 record "Teenage Dream," the 28-year-old's follow-up is so packed with should-be hits that it's easy to believe she added the extra just so she could break more chart records.
There she is dancing through the fire in "Roar," a champion floating like a butterfly, then brushing off the dust. She blooms like a flower on "Spiritual" and elsewhere alternately compares a lover to a double-rainbow, a lottery, trash and treasure.
On "International Smile," she celebrates a woman who's "a little bit of Yoko, and she's a little bit of 'Oh no!'" She plays ping-pong all night long and then cooks pancakes for her man. Jeffrey Dahmer eats her heart out (at least as rapped by Juicy J on "Dark Horse").
Produced mostly by a team of pop scientists including Max Martin, Lukasz "Dr. Luke" Gottwald and Henry "Cirkut" Walter, "Prism" is the work of a woman and men striving to awe entire populations. They do so by revealing in confident, just-vague-enough terms snapshots of Perry's emotional life over the last few years — with beat-heavy, rhythmically exciting accompaniment. In that span she married and divorced actor-comedian Russell Brand and became involved with singer John Mayer. Songs convey shadows of these experiences with a range of sensuality, bitterness, confusion, passion and grace.
Is it a lyrically accomplished album? Not really. By the end, the corpses of dead clichés are piled high. She flies as high as a kite, stings like a bee. Her heart beats like a drum, she's exposed to dirty laundry, chases her tail, runs a treadmill.
She succeeds, though, in adeptly capturing a pop world in wonderful stylistic disarray. Way more concerned with channeling emotion than tapping intellect, Perry and her producers cherry-pick accents and conceits from across pop music history.
"Birthday" updates disco by replacing cheesy strings with jerky breaks and synth washes. "This Is How We Do" sounds like a pure rave track, replete with synth squiggles and melodic dots — slowed and chopped. Journey-esque power ballads tussle with glistening sports anthems, designed by master craftsmen for universal appreciation. "Roar" will soundtrack inspirational clips for decades to come.
The stylistic expansiveness is a reflection of popular music in 2013, when artists of all genres gleefully pick through history to find their own fingerprint sound. Whether Dam-Funk and Snoop Dogg conjuring '80s funk, Taylor Swift suggesting new wave, John Mayer doing canyon rock or Daft Punk rethinking disco, the present scene is a pastiche.
For its part, "Prism" is patchwork minus any frayed edges or loose threads. Rather, beats and melodies seem riveted into place. "Unconditionally" simmers like Usher's "Climax" before heaving into a chorus. The euphoria of "Walking on Air," which celebrates what sounds like a pretty amazing night spent with Perry, is infectious. "By the Grace of God" is a cosmic track, one with a humming, dark tension in which Perry and melody float like red balloons.
Skeptics who decry this music as "disposable" often cite the overly structured, focus-grouped nature of modern pop. "Prism" is indeed tightly structured and, it could be argued, exists as 13 distinct marketing opportunities. The longest song is the 41/2–minute ballad "Spiritual," and most clock in at a minute less than that. These are melody delivery systems, crafted for maximum exposure and punch.
"Prism" has neither fat nor pretense. In its own masterful way, in fact, Perry's new work contains as much of-the-moment sonic surprise as any other modern pop album this year. Is she remaking the musical landscape? No, but she sure does know how to thrive within it.