Tuesday 6 November 2018

Review of 'Sweetener' by Ariana Grande

The ponytailed pop princess delivers playful production and positivity on her new polished LP. Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. Pppppppp.

It’s happened – I’m now an Ariana Grande fan (I think they’re called Arianators, but I’m not prepared to go that far quite yet).

Whilst her previous material has been a little too plain and poppy for my liking, Sweetener sees Grande exploring a more – dare I say it – alternative sound. There are still some glaring cash grabs here such as ‘breathin’ and ‘God is a woman’, but the bulk of the tracklist sounds like it’s not trying to be radio-friendly.

This has a lot to do with the quirky production, a lot of which comes courtesy of Pharrell Williams. Raunchy title track ‘Sweetener’ is set to sugary synths and bubbly clicks, whilst ‘Borderline’ layers rave chords over bouncy trap percussion. I wouldn't be surprised if these beats were leftovers from the recent N.E.R.D album - if so they’re tasty leftovers (with the exception of ‘the light is coming’ which is ruined by its jarring sample).

The beats that aren’t produced by Pharrell are slightly more commercial, with the exception of the upbeat garage beat on ‘No Tears Left To Cry’ (which incidentally hasn’t stopped this song being a mainstream hit). Still, as glossy as these other beats are, none of them are plain boring, which keeps this album constantly engaging.

Of course, Ariana Grande’s impressive four octave spanning voice plays an important part in the equation. She does a lot of soulful harmonising and layering which makes each track feel playful – my favourite example being the jingly ‘R.E.M’ which even has some Mr-Sandman-style bum-bum-bumming in it (perhaps intentional given the sleep theme of the track). She manages to show off her range without going on obnoxious Mariah-Carey-style vocal runs, letting her voice soar for the big choruses and fade to a breathy croon for the more subdued songs.

As for the lyrics, they’re surprisingly upbeat given everything Ariana Grande has been through as of late. Her life has been turned upside down – which may well be the reason for the topsy turvy artwork – but despite this she responds to the tragedy positively with songs like closer ‘Get Well Soon’ offering a musical hug to all victims of her Manchester concert bombing and ‘everytime’ acting as a defiant breakup song with her ex Mac Miller. All in all, the tracks feel more personal and more impactful. Even if other songwriters are credited alongside her, the lyrics feel intimate, which elevates this beyond the usual generic pop.

It’s a shame that it often takes personal tragedy to bring the best music out of an artist. Since Sweetener’s release, Grande has already had to deal with further devastating news and has announced a new album which may possibly be out before 2018 is up. Will she continue to keep things as upbeat?