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Ariana Grande rediscovers her Midas touch with her new album Thank U, Next

Ariana Grande rediscovers her Midas touch with her new album Thank U, Next

February 09
10:58 2019

Coined by the Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant in the 2000s, the term “imperial phase” has entered pop’s lexicon. It refers to the period in a successful act’s career when they are at their most powerful, a cultural hegemon able to bend the charts to their will. The notion fits with western pop’s grandiose sense of its place in the world — a space in which the album-tour cycle is exalted as an “era” and the humble goat finds itself transformed into an acronym for “greatest of all time”.

Ariana Grande is currently recognised to be in her imperial phase. But in her case, the pre-eminence — measured by the various streaming records broken by her new album’s lead single and title track “Thank U, Next” — has a difficult and unsettling background in an event that makes pop’s hyperbolic language pale into insignificance.

The bombing at Grande’s concert in Manchester in 2017, murdering 22 people and injuring 139, followed by her dignified and defiant response with the One Love benefit concert afterwards, transformed perceptions of the singer. Such was the goodwill felt towards her that her first post-Manchester album, last year’s Sweetener, was greeted with acclaim. But sympathy obscured the fact that it was a patchy affair, unbalanced by Pharrell Williams’ self-consciously envelope-pushing production work.

Thank U, Next arrives less than half a year after Sweetener, an unconventionally brief gap between “eras”. The disregard for usual scheduling reflects the sway that Grande now has in the music industry, a token of her imperialness. But its title also conveys an implicit recognition that Sweetener’s quality did not live up to her new status. Grande has chosen to strike again while the iron is still hot: thank you, next.

The result is a far more cohesive album. Producers and songwriters who have worked with Grande throughout her career are involved, including Tommy Brown and Max Martin, but not Williams. The songs find a smoother, less jarring register for her stylistic move away from the chart-pop of her early work towards R&B, a musical mode that allows for a fuller expression of her singing skills.

Unlike Sweetener, which ended with a touching tribute to its victims, the Manchester atrocity is not alluded to directly. Recent episodes of turmoil in the singer’s private life, such as last year’s accidental death by drug overdose of the rapper Mac Miller, an ex-boyfriend, and a shortlived engagement to the comedian Pete Davidson, are only given brief mention. Instead, the album gives restrained expression to its themes of vulnerability, recovery and strength.

It is bookended by “Imagine”, an airy fantasy about a perfect romance, and “Break Up with Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored”, a bassy, impish number about wrecking someone else’s romance. In “NASA”, the singer issues what sounds like a seductively relaxed come-on to a lover, but is actually a plea to be left alone. “Fake Smile” works a 1960s soul song, Wendy Rene’s “After Laughter”, into a superb, hip-hop-accented song about presenting false appearances. (Hardcore rap fans will be surprised to find in it an effective companion piece to the Wu-Tang Clan’s “Tearz”, which used the same sample.)

“Bloodline” is the most conventionally upbeat number, a bright, ska-influenced effort with Swedish production maestro Max Martin’s fingerprints all over it. But the songs never push themselves too insistently at the listener. Nor does Grande let loose the splashy vocal theatrics that she is more than capable of performing.

“Thank U, Next” treats the frequently overblown theme of self-empowerment in the deftest fashion, while the album’s other big hit single “7 Rings” makes wonderfully light-fingered use of the tune from The Sound of Music’s “My Favourite Things”. In a sign that Grande’s Midas touch really is functioning this time, it has provided Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, credited as co-writers, with their first Billboard number one hit.


‘Thank U, Next’ is released on Island Records

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