Katy Perry released her sophomore album, “Teenage Dream,” at the age of 25, but the 2010 effort pristinely captured the chirpy buoyancy of youth through gooey synth-pop. There was a reason that “Teenage Dream” spawned a record-tying five No. 1 singles on the Hot 100 — it was extremely easy for large audiences to relate to Perry’s themes of euphoria, independence and summer fun, especially with such a likable figure presenting these topics in the catchiest of forms.
Perry is still championing optimism with super-producers Max Martin, Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald and Cirkut as her sonic guides — see her latest chart-topper, “Roar” — but “PRISM” is also a firm and well-executed step toward adulthood. New single “Unconditionally” trades in the idealistic love of “Teenage Dream” for a romance more realistic and reliable; elsewhere, Perry evokes her recent divorce (“Ghost”) and its personal effects (“By The Grace of God”) with slowed-down guitar hooks and thoughtful piano strikes. While the first half of “PRISM” flashes an array of sonic and lyrical colors, hopping from disco (“Walking on Air”) to rap (“Dark Horse”) to sumptuous pop-rock (“International Smile”), the second half feels more lived-in, with Perry patiently discussing her battles with hopeless relationships, struggles to understand herself and attempts to live for the moment in a whirlwind reality. These songs are not the bubblegum summer smashes of a California Gurl, but something much deeper from an artist striving to tell her full story.
“PRISM” has its share of candy-colored fun, but also something else: more detail in its tempered shades. With a string of hit singles under her belt, Perry has aspired to create a multi-faceted full-length and has consummately succeeded.
Which songs on “PRISM” are the best of the best? Check out our track-by-track take on Katy Perry’s third album.
On an album that contains multiple “I survived a trauma and am stronger for it” anthems, “Roar” is the most accessible, and deservedly became Perry’s eighth No. 1 Hot 100 single. One could dock a few points for the lack of a compelling bridge, but those points would be scooped back up thanks to the chorus’ combustible assonance and the morphing of the word “roar” into a two-syllable rallying cry.
2. Legendary Lovers – Perry name-checks Cleopatra and Shakespeare’s Juliet in describing the eternal passion she and her man could experience on this mystical love song. The singer’s multi-cultural excavations are proudly rattled off, but the hook tidily simplifies Perry’s intent as the drums are unforgivingly clobbered.
3. Birthday – Taking the fairly straightforward lyrical concept of birthday-as-sex and making the absolute most of it, Perry outclasses Rihanna’s “Birthday Cake” and shimmies through a blazing brass party. Dr. Luke, Martin and Cirkut concoct a delicious nugget of synth candy, but the star here is Perry, who keeps her tongue firmly in cheek during the salacious verses before teetering between power and falsetto on the hook.
4. Walking on Air
“Walking on Air” shirks the double entendres of “Birthday” and allows Perry to re-imagine herself as a progressive house artist, complete with brassy backup vocals bridging the gaps in her euphoric lyrics. Credit to Klas Ahlund, a frequent Robyn collaborator, for knowing precisely how to utilize Perry’s layered vocals on this crackerjack genre stop.
5. Unconditionally – The beat drips toward a drain, a distant voice cries something undecipherable, and Perry sounds defeated before committing to “your bad days with your good.” Perry has described “PRISM’s” second single as her favorite song on the album, and while “Unconditionally” is more difficult to uncork than, say, “Birthday,” the visceral ballad successfully conveys Perry’s most prized possession: a relationship with zero asterisks.
6. Dark Horse feat. Juicy J
The pop singer sashays toward trap music on “Dark Horse” and absolutely scores; the dank, murmuring production on the song is not the easiest track to navigate, but Perry shape-shifts into a lip-puckering femme fatale and slays. Oddly, the album’s lone guest, Juicy J, can’t make a simile stick (“She eat your heart out/Like Jeffrey Dahmer!”), but Perry rescues “Dark Horse” with a barn-burning final chorus.
7. This Is How We Do – There’s a reason that Perry repeats the phrase “It’s no big deal” on the pre-chorus in “This Is How We Do” — the song is a paean for stakes-free frivolity, from the keyboard blasts that puncture the hook to the ingenious “Mariah Carey-oke” line. The “bring the beat back!” outro is a bit laborious, but at this point, Perry has earned the right to showcase her sillier side.
8. International Smile – The kicky pop-rock ode to Perry’s pal, jet-setting producer Mia Moretti, closes out the first half of “PRISM” on the lightest of steps. “International Smile” shifts to third-person point of view as Perry studies her friend’s global savvy, and features another ardent breakdown, this time using a funked-up vocoder breakdown that would make Daft Punk green with envy (if they weren’t, you know, robots).
9. Ghost – The album’s second movement begins with Perry extending the mood from “Wide Awake,” as she clearly sees her beau for all of his flaws. The self-assuredness is also recognizable in this Dr. Luke/Martin/Cirkut collaboration, a ringing guitar riff chugging Perry along toward independence.
10. Love Me – “I lost my own, my own identity/Forgot that you picked me for me,” goes this snappy track about the sanctity of acceptance, which benefits from Bloodshy’s luminescent collection of soft rhythms and escalating tempos. There’s a lot to unpack in the details of “Love Me,” making it one of “PRISM’s” most replay-worthy tracks.
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11. This Moment – Pop songs often touch upon the pitiless passage of time, but rarely does a radio-friendly track address the subject with this much clarity. In under four minutes, Perry inspires the listener to stop dwelling on the past, understand the important of the present and seize the future, in a neon package wrapped by Stargate and Benny Blanco.
12. Double Rainbow – Leave it to Sia and Greg Kurstin to contribute the most precise pop track to “PRISM” — like the former’s David Guetta collaboration “Titanium,” “Double Rainbow” lets its vocalist drift through the uncluttered ether of its verse before hammering down on the majestic chorus. Perry sounds supremely comfortable working over this throwback track, which could have easily been a hit for Cyndi Lauper if it had been dreamed up three decades earlier.
13. By The Grace of God – A piano ballad that holds little back, “By The Grace of God” is the most revealing song Perry will likely ever pen about her failed marriage and its resulting depression. “Looked in the mirror and decided to stay/Wasn’t gonna let love take me out that way,” the singer concludes, as she strides out of the abyss with her head held high. “By The Grace of God” is obviously not the radio fare fans are used to from the pop star, but is crucial for anyone trying to understand Perry’s “PRISM” mind set.
14. Spiritual – The first extra song on the “PRISM” deluxe edition serves as the yang to “By The Grace of God’s” yin, with Perry’s current boyfriend, John Mayer, co-writing a lilting track about being head over heels. Fear not, “Spiritual” is not syrupy in the least — in fact, the “sweet ecstasy” that Perry sings about is gifted in such a charming, catchy manner that listeners are likely to float right alongside the singer.
15. It Takes Two – One of the few songs on “PRISM” that does not sound quite right for its performer, “It Takes Two” translates the soulful optimism of co-writer Emeli Sande’s music into another instant of self-examination for Perry. The lyrics are arresting enough to be heard, however, and Perry musters enough power to sell “It Takes Two” the best she can.
16. Choose Your Battles– “PRISM” ends on a correctly contemplative foot, with tribal drums swirling while Perry pounds her chest and spews venom at the man she cannot understand. Perry’s longtime collaborator Greg Wells works with a muted palette of colors here, keeping the focus on the drums and the tender vulnerability on Perry’s voice.