On ‘Smile,’ Katy Perry Finds Purpose (and Pitfalls) in the Past

On ‘Smile,’ Katy Perry Finds Purpose (and Pitfalls) in the Past

“Smile” often feels like it is testing out a few different concepts as to what Perry’s music might sound like in the future, once she’s accepted that she is no longer chasing world-dominating hits. The sweet, twangy closer “What Makes a Woman” provides one possibility, while the appealing, guitar-driven beach pop of “Tucked” offers a more familiar one.

At its low points, though, “Smile” still feels tethered to the cold, steely, semi-desperately radio-chasing aesthetic of “Witness.” The try-hard anthem “Not the End of the World” shuffles through several different expensively cleared hooks (an interpolation of “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye,” a years-late nod to Drake’s “What a Time to Be Alive”), but none of them click. There are also two (consecutive!) songs about the well-worn pop tableau of crying on the dance floor, and while one (“Teary Eyes”) is better than the other (“Cry About It Later”), zero would have also sufficed. “Harleys in Hawaii” and “Champagne Problems” fail to make being rich, famous and in love sound particularly relatable, or interesting.

The most surprising strength of “Smile,” though, is the way it circles back to the earliest days of Perry’s recording career. Years before she became Katy Perry, the 16-year-old Katy Hudson released an angsty but ecstatic Christian-rock record — think mid-90s Alanis, had she been addressing her songs to Christ instead of Dave Coulier. While “Smile” lacks that alt-rock edge, its most deeply felt material has a familiar devotional quality about it. “I am resilient, born to be brilliant,” she sings with soulful conviction on “Resilient,” a reunion with her “Firework” producers Stargate. On the title track, she posits that “rejection can be God’s protection.”

Most striking, though, is the Amy Grant-style gospel pop of the penultimate track, “Only Love.” Atop openhearted keyboard chords, Perry, a new mother, extends an olive branch to her parents: “If I had nothing to lose, I’d call my mother and tell her I’m sorry,” she sings. “I’d pour my heart and soul into a letter and send it to my dad.”

Their version of faith may look different from hers, but Perry sounds like she has not given up searching for a force greater than herself. In these moments, however fleeting, she seems at last to have figured out what “purposeful pop” actually means to her.

Katy Perry

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