Katy Perry has never been a critical darling. Her first two pop records garnered mixed reviews at best, and her MTV Unplugged, despite its strengths, went by virtually unnoticed. However, her sophomore major labor effort, Teenage Dream, found her realizing some of her bubble-gum-pop artistic ambitions and racking up huge hits, despite a lukewarm reception from the press. On Prism, Perry integrates her mass appeal and artistic strengths to create her best record: a realized, even, and mature pop album worthy of her likable image.
Of course, the singer/songwriter does not abandon her knack for reworking pop tropes in her own aesthetic. Instead, she filters those tropes through her personal experience, which lends this album a unifying intimacy that could only be felt on select tracks from previous releases. As such, she appropriates pop cliches to color her hooky sensibility, like she does on her spiritual and self-help anthems. "Legendary Lovers" features a sitar, Middle-Eastern drums, and lyrical references to Eastern religion that feel straight out of Alanis Morissette's So-Called Chaos; yet, the song's driving pace, chant-style phrasing, and instrumental breakdown are very much Perry's. Bonus track "Spiritual" is a love song written through religious imagery that is a slow-groove-90s-dance-inspired reworking of Madonna's "Like a Prayer" via New Age tropes. Other tracks, like house masterpiece "Walking on Air," also make references to god and heaven in route to talking about friendship and romance. It's also not likely a coincidence that the standard album has thirteen tracks, just like Madonna's spiritual pop masterpiece, Ray of Light. Katy Perry is a master student of pop craft, and she knows how to make a respectful nod to her predecessors without feeling like she's pandering.
Though the album is a lot of fun--"Roar" is great empowerment belter, "Birthday" pulses lustfully, "This is How We Do" is built for pre-gaming mixes--Perry makes a clear step into maturity by exploring adult contemporary territory. Many of these tracks are the kind of music Cyndi Lauper was rocking in the later 80s and early 90s with "True Colors" and "Who Let in the Rain." Because Perry is in such good voice, she can carry most of these songs with grace and charisma, like the arena love-ballad "Double Rainbow," "Love Me," and the determined "Unconditionally." Some of the more serious moments, namely the slow confessional breakup tunes "By the Grace of God" and "Ghost," are hardly the most interesting tracks on the record, but they are more gripping than some of Perry's deep cuts on her previous albums. Not to mention, they add important narrative details to the artist's creative trajectory.
Teenage Dream was notable for its bright tones and high pitched emotions, but Prism's charm is that it retains Perry's optimism, sense of humor, and ability to indulge in pop cliches while playing wtih a more sun-kissed palette. The relaxed, Laurel Canyon pacing on this record shows a singer and songwriter who has discovered herself and, while still having a good time, feels more at home with her strengths. Prism is part beauty, part confidence, and part joy, wrapped in a melodic, pleasurable pop package.