In the midst of an endlessly grim year for Ariana Grande, Adam Lawler celebrates an album that will endure the void.
Ariana Grande’s had a rough time of it lately, and none of it is her fault. There was the Manchester bombing, after which she retreated for a bit but still finished her latest album. She performed at Aretha Franklin’s funeral and was groped by a reverend, the video of which is uncomfortable to watch, and was subsequently shamed for wearing a short dress, as though Bill Clinton visibly creeping on her from behind is something that could have been controlled with sartorial choices.
Then there was Mac Miller. When they broke up Grande was shamed for leaving him at a low point, as if there’s ever a right time to leave a toxic relationship. She was laughed at for jumping straight into a relationship with SNL’s Pete Davidson and accused of cheating on Miller with him, as well as ridiculed for getting engaged after a month of dating. When Miller died it was almost depressingly easy to predict how much of the brunt would be put on Grande, and when she announced that she’d been taking some time off no one could blame her. The fact that this is happening at the very beginning of the promo cycle for her best and brightest album is unfortunate and saddening considering the album’s positivity and obvious healing qualities.
“when she announced that she’d been taking some time off, no one could blame her”
It’s clear that Ariana Grande fans didn’t really like Sweetener when it came out. Watch any first listen reaction video on YouTube and be bombarded with confused expressions and lamentations that it’s “weird” and that there are “no bops”. Scroll down to the comments to see countless braying to the tune of “Pharrell ruined the album”, “I’m just so disappointed breathin is the only good song”, ad nauseum.
This is the kind of album Sweetener is; confounding when you don’t expect the artist to take such a left turn; extremely rewarding when it takes you as pleasantly by surprise as it does. This is an album where the artist has picked the more artistically fruitful road over simple pleasures. It’s the type of album that separates the wheat from the chaff, where Grande takes stock of the artist she wants to be and, by proxy, who she will take along for the ride on the next stage of her career.
The knee-jerk reaction to Sweetener is one of the many things wrong with the phenomenon of Stan Twitter. They are the most fervent supporters of their artists of choice, but also their biggest detractors. This would be acceptable if their criticisms were based on anything but a narrow idealisation of who the artist is and a musical palette based on nothing but pop from the last five years and maybe, if they’re really adventurous, some early 2000s hits. Frankly, they don’t have the range to be talking about pop music, which Sweetener still wholeheartedly is.
Compared to her costume-y older hits, these songs are fun in a way that sounds both relaxed and worn down, joy earned through hardship. The whole album is produced in a way that glimmers from the tinniest speakers and really glows on headphones thanks to the contrasting but complementary talents of Pharrell and Max Martin, who provide shades of light and are quirky and punishingly anthemic, respectively.
“The whole album is produced in a way that glimmers from the tinniest speakers and really glows on headphones thanks to the contrasting but complementary talents of Pharrell and Max Martin”
There are so many songs here that just wouldn’t work for any other vocalist, and not in an Adele way, where her voice is the only thing keeping them from dipping into MOR territory, but because the songs are built around Grande’s endlessly versatile gift. ‘successful’ starts as a strange honky-tonk concoction elevated to cool flirtatiousness with tongue-in-cheek bragging by her low-key vocals and Pharrell’s knowing beat switches. ‘goodnight n go’, although an Imogen Heap cover, is a mini revelation, blending truly gorgeous vocals and Heap’s bedroom-intimate words with the fizzy bluster of that deathless Flume-indebted sound. “R.E.M” is a rework of an unreleased Beyoncé track and Grande elevates it to the clouds with breathy reverence.
‘breathin’ is an interesting song in this set. Although it is a traditionally trend-chasing Ariana Grande banger that should really feel generic, its placement in the tracklist and poignant lyrics, concerning dealing with anxiety and trauma, prevent it from feeling like a regressive point on a progressive album, even with a beat taken wholesale from Drake’s ‘Just Hold On, We’re Going Home’. It’s these small choices that really take this album higher; she could have easily featured more songs like ‘breathin’ to great success, but she didn’t. She could have named the gorgeous interlude ‘pete davidson’ something less direct considering foresight; that doesn’t mean she should have. It’s exactly this commitment to unapologetically naming and celebrating the things that bring light to her life that makes this album special. Also, there are no ballads. Although Grande does ballads better than most, this is still a relief. The closest to a truly saccharine moment there is is the title track, but the ridiculously catchy Bop It-aping breakdown gives it an offbeat counterpoint that balances out, and it’s far dirtier than it appears on first listen.
There are no songs that really fall flat, but there are murky moments that dull the effervescence of the album, such as the forgettable ‘everytime’, the second in the trilogy of forgettable Ariana songs with every-something in the title and a likely fifth single. It is also worth wondering why both Nicki Minaj and Missy Elliot’s verses are so truncated and pedestrian, but when an album is this cohesive it’s hard to want to take off any songs; each one tastes like more.
“this year in pop music has been tiring”
This is before the album reaches its satisfying closer, ‘get well soon’, which might be Grande’s best song to date. “Girl what’s wrong with you, come back down” coo the backing Grandes with lightly-frowning concern. It thrives on the energy derived from the tension between discomfort and calm, sounding almost stately in its finger clicks and emphatic piano, each section sounding like a further descent into a spiritual vortex. Anyone could tell that this song was a healing experience for Grande as it will likely be for many others, without even considering the forty seconds of silence at the end which brings the runtime to 5:22, a quiet reference to the date of the Manchester attacks she so gracefully handled last year.
Maybe it’s not the stans’ fault that they don’t know how to act; this year in pop music has been tiring, and this year’s tentpole releases have made Grande’s current visual aesthetic consisting solely of “Being Upside Down” feel fresh and exciting. Grande has just woken up, however. If you don’t see the future of music as she does, maybe turn your perception on its head. Sweetener hit number one on the Billboard 200, so you’re going to have to get used to the fact that Miss Grande is undoubtedly entering her imperial phase, her skill level as high and tight as her ponytail. We honestly couldn’t ask for a better pop star right now.
In A Nutshell: A vibrant, odd and euphoric pastel-coloured triumph and the pop album of the year so far.