It was nine years ago that Katy Perry splashed onto the scene with "I Kissed a Girl." It was a promiscuous single that was hard to ignore, in part because it explored sexuality in a grey area. The album it accompanied ("One of the Boys") was an extremely tomboyish album that showed promise of a new pop star rebel, or one of the oddest one hit wonders. In 2017, it's hard to think of Perry doing anything as salacious, especially since her career has turned to making empowering anthems like "Firework" and "Roar." Yet it's her personality that's missing on "Witness": an album that sees her strip off her elaborate productions in favor of club beats and a more antagonistic attitude. While there's traces of understanding Perry the person here, its biggest issue is that there's little that is as gripping or authentic as even her biggest, informal hits. It's a gamble that produced some success, but inevitably feels a little empty.
The one vibe that is picked up immediately on the opening track "Witness" is that Perry wants to do something new. Musically, her beats are more sparing and require her to rely more on drawn out notes and skidded interludes. It's very much a move to display a talent that doesn't come from the production, but from Perry herself. She manages to hit those familiar notes with the fervor that made her so successful in the first place. She feels more personal, and it helps to make the album temporarily feel like it will have something deeper to say about her as an artist. The issue has always been her struggle between getting too personal, and releasing a Top 40 hit that will be heard on the radio for years to come. It's what has kept her from being a more compelling artist, but at least she knows how to rock a pop tune.
The conflict quickly arises as "Witness" leads into the innocuous "Hey Hey Hey." It's an empty song full of confusing language, displaying her unfortunate gift of relying on linguistic tropes to place over a melody. It's a vibe that continues for other songs that reflect a more defensive and impersonal side. This includes the not-not Taylor Swift bashing track "Swish Swish" where she puts on a braggadocio performance for the sake of starting a feud. It is full of subtle jabs, and a Nicki Minaj cameo, that show just how futile modern pop music is (stop fighting and start singing, people). The melody doesn't offer much but a redundant beat that will play to those who don't miss her more complex melodies of yesteryear. This is most apparent on the album's best pop song "Chained to the Rhythm." It lacks a deeper text, and it's odd that she would want to dance to distortion, but it hits the empty calories empowerment that her most popular songs have. It's fun, but when placed alongside all of these other songs it lacks power.
The album is a schizophrenic jumble of tones for Perry. While there's the bravado that she does well, it constantly clashes with a more personal and exciting tone. Even on the metaphorically silly "Tsunami" or "Mind Maze," she is seen exploring her conscience as she comes to terms with broken relationships. It's where the sonic landscape becomes most interesting as she ingeniously turns the typical heartbreak song into a more personal journey through social media. She self-reflects while looking at a phone, wondering if it's worth starting up old relationships. It's also when she sings most earnestly, even as she falls into impersonal linguistic metaphors.
What's most striking is that the strongest songs end the album and best reflect what the rest of the album could be. "Save as Draft" is a personal best for Perry, who turns the process of writing an e-mail to an ex into an emotional struggle. It's also where the pop tune deconstructs and reveals something far more personal than anything that came before. She takes a deep breath in the chorus, realizing that she needs to think about life-changing decisions before she acts on them. It's a moment that feels as autobiographical as the other ballads on the album, but feels innovative in ways that she achieved on "Teenage Dream." Closing out the album are the fun and infectious "Pendulum" and the deeply personal "Into Me You See" (which she rhymes with intimacy).
"Witness" is an album that could've been a masterpiece on par with Lady GaGa's "Joanne." While not a failure, Perry's new album continues to reflect a struggle between her personas. She cannot truly abandon what the public expects while also wanting to surprise them. It came at the cost of compelling and well produced rhythms, but it allowed her to experiment vocally - and it somehow manages to make her feel raw, even as she unfortunately applies autotune to her voice and borrows idiosyncratic beats. Maybe in time Perry will find her balance, but for now she will continue to struggle with identity like all pop stars should. With that said, there's plenty to fill the radio for the next few years, whether you want to dance or cry. She's become more charismatic in time, but she needs to now try to be more in control of her talent.
Rating: 3 out of 5