Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream" was perfect pop pleasantry, full of back-to-back hits that were oh-so-fun and addictive, fused with humor, emotion and a hint of edge. How could you resist?
Perry has some of that energy on "Prism," her third album, which comes three years after her pop star breakthrough. But she lacks some of the fiery fierceness and excitement that dominated "Teenage Dream." The singer's new electro-pop songs are likable - and surely there are some Top 10 hits here - but she's playing it safe. "Prism" is Perry as plain Jane.
The California girl, who turns 29 on Friday, is now singing self-help anthems and about recovering from her 2011 divorce from comedian-actor Russell Brand. The songs, though, don't drip with emotion and she rarely gets deep: The Sia-penned "Double Rainbow" and "By the Grace of God," slow grooves that close the album, don't really scratch the surface. They are good, but could be great if Perry didn't hold back and explored more lyrically and sonically. "Wasn't going to let love take me out that way," she sings on "Grace of God," apparently about contemplating suicide. While that topic is heavy, the song sounds like "Wide Awake" 2.0.
"Prism" was primarily written and produced with her frequent collaborators and hitmakers Max Martin, Dr. Luke and Bonnie McKee. But they don't always bring out the best Perry: "International Smile" is cheesy and "Legendary Lovers" is forgettable. Even "Roar," the eighth No. 1 hit for Perry, lacks oomph and swag. It can't compete with Sara Bareilles' similar "Brave."
Her team fares better on the sultry and upbeat "Birthday" and "Dark Horse," featuring rapper Juicy J, which works thanks to its mesh of Southern hip-hop and electronic flavors.
When Perry borders on changing up her sound and taking some risks, she is best. The irresistible deep house track "Walking on Air," a collaboration with Swedish producer Klas Ahlund, is a shining effort, while the bonus track "Spiritual," co-written with beau John Mayer, is a groovy highlight.
Part of the problem with "Prism" is it doesn't showcase much of Perry's personality. There is no high volume party anthem like "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)" that captured her silly and playful side, no spitting fire anger of "Circle the Drain" or the deeply felt, powerhouse vocals of "Thinking of You" from her 2008 debut, "One of the Boys."
Instead, Perry comes off like a pop tart robot on her new effort. She's busy keeping up with radio and others, and not creating her own lane: Even the beginning beat of "This Moment" sounds like Robyn's "Dancing On My Own" - in the way "Roar" sounds like "Brave."
"Prism" is enough to keep Perry on the charts, but it's time to think outside of the Billboard.