Christina Aguilera’s 2010 release Bionic is an album that draws many parallels with Katy Perry’s Witness. Both are products of an artist going through some kind of very public transition – Aguilera had become a mother and Perry has supposedly become ‘woke’, gaining some semblance of a social conscious. The bigger link however is one of a globally successful pop star attempting to sonically change gears, get out of their comfort zone and attempt to regain a new sheen of relevance. Aguilera enlisted the help of Santigold, Ladytron, Sia, Le Tigre and Switch – all considered to be edgy alt-pop artists at the time and not a natural fit for the R&B belter. Bionic turned out to be a mess – it failed to produce any big hits and although it did contain several great songs, has since been consigned to music’s bumper bargain bin. Which brings us onto Ms Perry.
Teenage Dream was a startling success: five number-ones and a subsequent, substantial impact on pop culture history. Its follow up, Prism, did less well but then what wouldn’t? So, with what feels like a forced and lengthy lead in, Katy Perry’s fifth album, Witness, is finally here and, like Bionic, it is a flawed (but less successful) oddball of a record.
The album’s best songs have almost already all been heard. The lead single ‘Chained to the Rhythm’ is the strongest, cleverest song here and ‘Swish Swish’ and ‘Bon Appetite’ are both great, solidly entertaining and fun dance records. This is a record that takes all its cues from eighties and nineties dance music. It is never once futuristic and, on the Sia co-write ‘Hey Hey Hey’, incorporates dated production techniques that are reminiscent of that period in 2005 when everyone wanted to sound like Goldfrapp.
‘Roulette’ is a musical hybrid of Snap’s ‘Rhythm Is a Dancer’ and ‘Sweet Dreams’ by Eurythmics – hardly inspired choices but Perry makes it work by delivering her vocals in an exasperated but removed style that is unexpectedly sneering. It also helps that ‘Roulette’ is a good song and this is where Witness constantly comes undone.
Perry knows her way around a massive chorus but these are in short supply here. Purity Ring produce the spare and trancey ‘Mind Maze’ but bring absolutely nothing new to the table and Hot Chip are involved in the drooping ballad of an album closer ‘Into Me You See’, but why collaborate with such a dynamic dance collective to deliver something as anodyne as this?
Lyrically, Katy Perry seems hurt but defiant, ‘I’m a goddess and you know it’ is a typical line and ‘Chained to the Rhythm’ stands alone in its critique of contemporary culture.
On an album that was meant to herald some kind of personal and social reawakening, Witness is little more than a disparate collection of failed experiments, occasionally interesting but with little to recommend it.