Ariana Grande: Sweetener review – pop's ponytailed paragon gets weird

Her collaborations with Pharrell really push the boundaries. But they make the rest of this album seem formulaic

Growing up in public is never straightforward. The route from kids’ TV-approved poppet to Serious Artist is traditionally fraught with issues. But arguably no pop star has ever had a tougher route than Ariana Grande. If it seems crass to suggest that the public and music industry’s perception of her was altered by the events of 22 May 2017 and their aftermath, well, at least one insider already went there. “In all honest[y], I feel like [after the Manchester bombing] was when different people from the record company actually started to understand what we were trying to do,” said Pharrell Williams, the producer Grande drafted in to give her fourth album some artistic edge, earlier this year. “It’s unfortunate that that situation is what gave it context, but they were able to really see it then. And that’s the truth.”

Ariana Grande: Sweetener – artwork
Ariana Grande: Sweetener – artwork Photograph: Republic

Certainly, the magazine profiles of the singer that have appeared since the terrorist attack have struck a new note of seriousness. One spent time exploring her mother’s love of 19th-century literature and her aunt’s friendship with Gloria Steinem and informed readers that Grande is not a nihilist – a useful clarification for anyone who felt Heidegger’s post-Nietzschean thinking underpinned the contents of her 2015 EP Christmas & Chill. Another opened with a 400-word disquisition on the semantic importance of the height at which Grande wears her ever-present ponytail. Whatever you make of that kind of thing, it suggests that now may be an apposite moment for Grande to try out a more experimental kind of pop than the charming but unchallenging brand of EDM and R&B-infused fizz with which she made her name.

And that’s just what Sweetener offers, at least in part. Anyone with a passing knowledge of Pharrell Williams’s back catalogue knows that, as a producer, he is extraordinarily talented and rather mercurial, as capable of making formulaic music as he is of the kind of sonic risk-taking that powered Kelis’s Milkshake or Snoop Dogg’s Drop It Like It’s Hot. But something about this particular collaboration seems to have fired up his imagination. The half of Sweetener with his fingerprints on it represents a genuinely bold and exciting move on Grande’s part. It’s filled with tunes richer and more serpentine than your average millennial pop topline.

On Borderline, Grande’s voice floats airily over a sinister, jarring chord sequence, not unlike the kind of thing that might have provided the hook in a dark old rave track. Even a song as ostensibly frothy as Successful shifts and twists unexpectedly in a way that suggests someone behind it is conversant with the work of 70s soul’s more expansive melodists. The lyrics, meanwhile, stick fast to Grande’s aim of providing light relief – “it feels good to be so young and hot” – rather than dwelling on the horror of what happened in Manchester. The latter topic seems to be addressed only glancingly and tangentially over the course of Sweetener, in the title of No Tears Left to Cry, the refrain of The Light Is Coming (“… to give back everything the darkness stole”) and in Breathin’s depiction of the singer in the grip of a panic attack.

Ariana Grande: The Light Is Coming – video

The album is packed with songs that blithely dispense with standard verse-chorus structures, that fling disparate musical influences together and seem to go out of their way to avoid cliche: the title track offers a bizarre, gripping splice of earthy Carole King-ish singer-songwriter piano ballad with Migos-inspired hip-hop, complete with onomatopoeic vocal interjections. In a world where a vast tranche of mainstream pop seems to be made using a checklist of sounds and effects, there is something very striking about the blue-sky thinking behind The Light Is Coming: a distorted snatch of dialogue from a news report about an angry rightwing crowd in rural Pennsylvania protesting against Obamacare runs throughout; the rhythm track jitters and glitches, overlaid with whistling, ping-ponging 80s video game electronics; the chorus is a playground chant, albeit with apocalyptic overtones.

In a dress. Not distress … Ariana Grande.
In a dress. Not distress … Ariana Grande. Photograph: Ian West/PA

The only problem is that these collaborations throw the rest of Sweetener into an unforgiving light. The gulf in invention between, say, Get Well Soon – a brave lyrical exploration of Grande’s mental health set to spiralling analogue synthesisers and lush multi-tracked vocal harmonies – and the saccharine ballad Better Off is pretty gaping. Clearly no one gave Swedish superproducer Max Martin the memo about avoiding cliches: his tracks deal exclusively in boilerplate stuff of varying degrees of quality. Driven by a skipping UK garage-inspired beat, No Tears Left to Cry is a high-quality example of the songwriter-for-hire’s art; on the other hand, Everytime is entirely formulaic and the most arresting thing about God Is a Woman is its title.

It makes for an uneven album that attempts to balance the desire to – as Grande put it – “make the weirdest thing we can” with something infinitely more straightforward. It sounds like the work of an artist torn between doing exactly what she pleases and, perhaps understandably under the circumstances, giving her audience what they want. But there’s no doubt which of these impulses is more successful artistically. It’s hard not to hope she throws caution completely to the wind next time: the world could use more pop music as imaginative as Sweetener’s highlights.

This week Alexis listened to

Bliss Signal: Bliss Signal

Soundcloud insists that Mumdance’s latest project – this time with Irish musician James Kelly – is #metal. In fact, Bliss Signal is a euphoric, head-clearing rush of beats and guitar noise.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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