A few seconds into Katy Perry’s new album, and you might be tricked into thinking she’s about to deliver the kind of pure pop escapism that so many have found refuge in during the past few months. Carly Rae Jepsen did it by serving up another enjoyable slice of perfectionist disco-pop with Dedicated Side B; Lady Gaga built a whole universe for her Little Monsters to dance in during a pandemic with Chromatica. Opener ‘Never Really Over’ gravitates more towards Jepsen’s approach: bubbly keys, tight finger snaps, and a slick bass line escalate into an infectious, propulsive hook that’s anchored by 80s-inspired electro synths and effective vocal layering. Perry’s voice might lack conviction, but all the other elements are there – it’s a shame the rest of the album never really comes to close to replicating that high.
Instead, Smile seeks to do little more than evoke the reaction that’s so unambiguously stated in its title. But in its careless embrace of the power of positivity, it ends up feeling less like an empowering triumph than a disquietingly tepid collection of self-help clichés. The album was marketed as “a journey towards the light, with stories of resilience, hope, and love”; instead what we’re served is a series of mostly empty, disconnected platitudes like “I’m thankful/ Scratch that, baby, I’m grateful” and “You can take a frown, turn it all the way around”. ‘Never Really Over’ might not exactly be rich in detail, either, but at least there’s a story there, and Perry sells it: “Two years, and just like that/ My head still takes me back/ Thought it was done, but I/ Guess it’s never really over,” she sings, and every single element in the mix sounds precision-engineered to mirror that feeling.
There are moments where Perry hints at the emotional pain that she’s had to endure during dark times, but the writing lacks the necessary nuance to make them resonate. “I am resilient/ Born to be brilliant,” she belts out on ‘Resilient’, undercutting a powerful proclamation with a vapid attempt at sticking to a rhyme scheme. ‘Champagne Problems’ boasts the kind of funky, upbeat instrumental that could have landed on Dua Lipa’s latest album, but the lyrics once again fall flat, painting a picture of a troubled relationship while glossing over any real problems in service of the album’s dogmatic message. At least the following track, ‘Tucked’, which is nearly identical in its glitzy presentation, is more up-front about the nature of it: “Tucked deep, deep in my fantasy/ ‘Cause, in reality, we’re a mistake/ Don’t need permission to do what I do to you/ When all you are to me’s a sweet escape.”
Had Smile taken that route and went all in on this brand of escapist fantasy, it could have worked. ‘Harleys in Hawaii’ is another shining example of that, a straightforward, sultry tropical cut that cruises through its runtime with effortless ease. But the album is instead framed as a story of overcoming real hardships, when really, it’s a story about having overcome them. The glossy ‘Cry About it Later’ is a vocoder-enhanced song about having fun and leaving all the worrying for later, while the next track is literary about crying while having fun. There’s no emotional release, no moment of earnest vulnerability to make any of these moments feel earned: it doesn’t do much to proclaim that “it’s not the end of the world” when it never felt like it was. Except, of course, in the real world.
‘Daisies’ is one possible exception here, a track that tiptoes the line between being generic and specific enough to truly land – it helps that there’s some actual punch and dramatic weight to the production, too. But on the whole, Smile is befitting of its title: in itself, it could represent anything and everything depending on the context, and Perry never really attempts to sketch out what’s behind it. Like the conventional pop formulas she has often excelled at – and even successfully broken away from with her last album, 2016’s Witness – its power is universally undisputed. But if you want it to keep having the same impact without wearing thin, you have to do more than stretch it out for a prolonged period of time.