Friday, January 19, 2018
Music News, Concert Reviews

Reviews: Katy Perry's 'Witness,' Halsey's 'hopeless fountain kingdom' showcase singers moving in opposite directions

We have no Adele, no Beyoncé, no Taylor on the horizon. The door, it would seem, is wide open for another Queen of Pop to rise and claim summer's throne

This month has brought new albums from two arena-filling candidates: Halsey's hopeless fountain kingdom and Katy Perry's Witness. They've spawned a few catchy singles, but nothing (so far) as indisputably gigantic as Closer or California Gurls.

As we await LPs by Lorde, Haim and Lana Del Rey, it's up to Halsey and Perry to save us from the summer doldrums.

• • •

Little about Halsey's voice (husky and wavering) or aesthetic (tortured, tattooed and Tumblr-chic) ever screamed crossover superstar. But her fervent fan base, along with a starring role on the Chainsmokers' Closer, has lifted her from cult heroine to arena headliner at the ripe old age of 22.

While she's produced catchy songs in the past, hopeless fountain kingdom is the first evidence that Halsey is steering this ship toward a long career. The songwriting and production are all more in step with modern emo-pop and digital R&B than 2015's Badlands, and you get the sense Halsey is just starting to get comfortable in her skin.

First, the odd: hopeless fountain kingdom opens with The Prologue, a spoken-word incantation over organs, followed by a swirl of Halsey's diginlly altered singing. Later comes Good Mourning, an interlude of a chipper child's voice that leads into the stabbing piano of Lie, featuring Migos's Quavo rapping over airy, ambient synthesizers. The theatrical Walls Could Talk feels a little like Britney Spears covering Panic! at the Disco, a disposable breakup song delivered with emo-strength theatricality.

But somehow, these curious little excursions only enhance the album's intimacy and relatability. Swimming in moody synthesizers and watery reverb; songs like the piano ballad Sorry and digitally altered benediction Hopeless seem mixed for noiseproof headphones in a darkened bedroom. At her most tortured, Halsey delivers echoes of her former tourmate the Weeknd's early work — especially on the sparse, devious Eyes Closed, which he co-wrote, and which is just begging for an all-star club remix.

Meanwhile, Alone, a finger-snapping nugget of sunny disco soul, and the eclectic trop-house tones and rhythms of 100 Letters, make you want to bust out of the bedroom and strut down the street. Same with the back-to-back Bad at Love (a song about thinking of your ex while "face to face with someone new") and Don't Play (about finally getting over said ex).

And then there is the album's biggest banger, Strangers, a duet with Fifth Harmony's Lauren Jauregui. Like Halsey, Jauregui identifies as bisexual, and the song is unambiguously sung from woman to woman, "strangers with the same damn hunger to be touched, to be loved, to feel anything at all." Thrillingly propulsive, Strangers is an LGBT love song that could and should score any couple's summer one-night stand, regardless of sexuality. That's a leap forward not just for Halsey, but for pop music as a whole.

• • •

Katy Perry's last album, Prism, opened with Roar, an empowering bit of open-hearted piano-pop befitting her all-ages fan base. It's fair to say that on Witness, Perry's first album in her 30s, she's thinking more like a grown-up, trading her Disney-eyed charm for a more studied exercise in cool.

Right from the minimalist thrum and clicks of the opening title track, Witness shows a deep commitment to European disco. Brits (Duke Dumont, Hot Chip, Jack Garratt), Swedes (led by the unstoppable Max Martin) and the occasional Aussie (Sia) and Canadian (Purity Ring) dominate Witness' production and songwriting credits, making this the clubbiest album Perry's ever produced, and not in a way that feels overdone in America.

"If I'm not evolving, I'm just another robot taking up oxygen," Perry sings on Bigger Than Me. And she is defiant in her decision, singing on Hey Hey Hey about how she's "karate-chopping the cliches and norms all in a dress," adding on Power: "Hell hath no fury like a woman reborn / and now I'm burning like a blue flame once more."

Eh, maybe. Perry's adherence to this more mature aesthetic leaves chunks of Witness (Mind Maze, Roulette, Power) feeling rigid and joyless, or at least not as personal as she's trying to suggest. But it also yields some classic catchy Katy.

Take Swish Swish, a deep-house hater-baiter supposedly aimed at Taylor Swift that's loaded with quotable dissses ("Karma's not a liar / she keeps receipts") and a few unnecessary but fun enough bars from Nicki Minaj. The song's icy pianos, finger-snaps and ecstatic, repetitive whoops evoke a late-'80s, after-hours New York City rave. That's followed by an even better dance track, Deja Vu, a thrusting electro lament about a relationship turned sour.

Perry hasn't completely abandoned the big, sweeping pop song — ballads like the dramatic Miss You More and understated piano denouement Into Me You See are straight from the Adele playbook — but even her singles radiate in different shades. Lead single Chained to the Rhythm is a throbbing dose of louche French house with a splash of Caribbean juice from reggae scion Skip Marley; the unsubtle food-as-sex metaphor Bon Appetit, featuring the omnipresent Migos, writhes and twists around dreamy, hypnotic synthesizers.

Some of Witness' best moments come when the beats per minute get dialed back just a bit, such as on the synth-funk interlude Tsunami or sunny electro-soul revival Pendulum. And while Witness’ lyrics aren't always as clever as its songwriters seem to think — see Chained to the Rhythm's cliched "wasted zombies" "living in a bubble" in suburbia — there aren't many love songs about The Way We Date Now as sharp as Save As Draft, a knowing reminder that not every emotion needs to be spilled in an email or splashed across social media.

There's a difference between living your teenage dream and dance-dance-dancing to the distortion of adulthood, and at 32, Perry's still figuring it out. The new flavors she savors on Witness may not be all that you want, but they're worth a nibble or two. Bon appetit, baby.

Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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