It’s been 10 years since Katy Perry’s mega-blockbuster Teenage Dream set an almost stratospherically high bar for modern Californicated pop bliss in the 21st century, becoming the first album to land five songs at the top of the charts since Michael Jackson’s Bad. That’s a tough act to follow, and like Jackson in the post-Bad era, Perry struggled to come up with the right second act, failing to keep pace with an increasingly ambitious and arty pop world as she tried genre-leaping introspection on 2013’s Prism and therapeutic wokeness on 2017’s Witness.
On Smile, she stops trying to keep up with the Halseys and happily defaults to the fizzy bombast that is her stadium-size safety zone. “I’m ready for a shameless summer/Champagne on ice only makes you stronger,” she sings on “Cry About It Later.” The Zedd co-produced opener, “Never Really Over,” is a fan-servicing surge of mirror-ball synths, heroically martial snare thwacks, and Perry crushing every note into golden dust. On “Teary Eyes,” she skates over silky house music, while “Tucked” is disco fluff of the first order. Charlie Puth co-writes “Harleys in Hawaii,” a cute island R&B escapade about riding road hogs, chasing rainbows, and doing the “hula, hula, hula” down to the “jeweler, jeweler, jeweler.”
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Katy Perry joint without some resplendently goofy cringe-core lyrics, and the lady doth not disappoint in that regard. She sings, “Tried to knock me down/Took those sticks and stones/Showed ’em I could build a house,” on the empowerment maelstrom “Daisies,” and follows that up with an I’m-a-flower-growing-through-the-concrete conceit on the very next song, the equally gigantic “Resilient.” In promoting the album, Perry talked about the depression brought on by a debilitating breakup with her now-fiancé Orlando Bloom a couple of years back, and yet while there’s enough eye water here to fill a Big Gulp, she usually powers through to remind herself that it’s perfectly OK to be happily partnered with Legolas. “We put the dirty work in/So now we know it’s worth it,” she sings over the juicy beat and Bee Gees strings of “Champagne Problems.”
The only turd in the champagne glass is the closing bummer, “What Makes a Woman.” If it’s possible to be condescending to yourself, this song does it: “I feel most beautiful doing what the fuck I want/Is it that my intuition is never really off/I need tissues for my issues/And Band-Aids for my heart,” she sings. For the most part, though, this is the sound of ably inching back to pop heaven.