Ariana Grande Returns, Older and Wiser, With the Sparkling, Sarcastically Titled ‘Endless Sunshine’: Album Review

It’s been a very quiet three-and-a-half years for Ariana Grande — quiet for one of music’s biggest stars, anyway — and a bit of an adjustment for fans. She’d been almost ubiquitous, catapulting into her musical career at a superhuman velocity in 2013 and releasing six albums in just over seven years — a fierce clip for anyone whose name doesn’t include the words Swift or Prince — while touring constantly, launching multimillion-dollar brands, racking up 14 songs with a billion-plus streams on Spotify alone, and establishing herself as one of the most formidable presences on social media.

She was 27 when her last album, “Positions,” dropped, but it was an old 27 — all of that success came with more than a little drama and trauma, so it’s not surprising that a breather was in order. Since then, she’s made just a handful of guest appearances on other artists’ songs (although her two duets with the Weeknd were both global smashes) and, with her starring role in Universal’s big-screen adaptation of the hit Broadway musical “Wicked” due later this year, she’s also wisely shunning the spotlight to avoid oversaturation before that film’s inevitable promotional juggernaut.

But the film is separate from her musical career, and clearly a lot has happened in those years. So what does Ari@30 sound like? Older and wiser, sure, but also seasoned, patient and, dare we say, mature, both lyrically and musically. If it felt like her last couple of albums represented finding her voice as an artist, now she’s really found it.

Grande has become even more of a virtuoso singer, dialing back the showboating and whistle notes and instead using nuance and her complex, interlocking, multi-tracked vocals to create texture and intimacy. But what that voice is singing has grown just as much as how she’s singing it.

Of course, “Eternal Sunshine” — the title is ironic, duh — is deeply self-referential, a musical diary of a life lived very publicly by someone with a Beyonce/Taylor-level ability to share just enough to keep her ravenous fans both informed and guessing (and, of course, titillated).

Suffice it to say Grande got married and divorced since her last album dropped, and the ensuing emotions permeate both the music and the lyrics here — but they’re also universal enough to touch anyone who’s ever been in love and/or married and/or heartbroken. There’s love, loss, lust, anger, infatuation, betrayal and sadness, there’s trying and failing to be what someone wants you to be. “I fall asleep crying/ You turn up the TV”; “Spent so much on therapy; blamed my own codependency”; “Now she’s in my bed laying on your chest/ Now I’m in my head wondering how this ends”; and the awesome line “You played me like Atari” gets a vintage videogame sound-effect for punctuation.

She drops strategic f-bombs for emphasis — and says “shit” in two of the album’s first three verses — and, as usual, has no fear of being sexually upfront with her trademark combination of saucy and sweet. “Nothing else felt this way inside me”; “I want you to come claim it/ name it/ make it yours”; “The boy is mine/ Let’s get intertwined”; and, sauciest of all, she slams overly attentive media and others during the baby-voiced verses toward the end of “Yes, And?”: “Your business is yours and mine is mine/ Why do you care so much whose ! I ride” (the exclamation mark is silent on the recording).

But the most affecting verses are the sad ones. There’s little anguish — just the kind of sadness when you know it’s over and feel sorry and angry and guilty and resigned while trying not to think about how much you’ll miss the person, especially on the album’s second single, “We Can’t Be Friends.” The song channels the rhythm from Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” and has a descending chord progression on the chorus that makes you feel like your heart is sinking with it: “We can’t be friends/ But I’d like to just pretend… and wait until you like me again.” Oof.

Yet those verses wouldn’t be anywhere near as affecting and effective without the pristine, state-of-the-art music, which was almost entirely written and produced by Grande with longtime collaborators Max Martin (aka the most successful songwriter-producer of the past 30 years) and Ilya Salmanzadeh, who bring a very Swedish vibe and structure to the tracks, steeped in classic pop and multiple other genres, with a musicality not always present in Anglo-American hitmakers.

But there’s no question whose album this is, and like so many female superstars, Grande is tragically underrated as a musician. She’s not only a virtuoso singer but a skilled vocal arranger and producer whose multitracked backing voices are like songs on their own, embellishing and responding to her lead like a troupe of attuned dancers. The first half of the album is low-key, leaning on mid-tempo R&B and easier grooves, starting off with “Bye,” which channels early ‘70s Gamble & Huff/ Philadelphia Soul, complete with a swooning strings (played by a battery of Swedes, of course) and open hi-hat rhythm — and a nod to Beyonce on the chorus. It then shifts into a series of mid-tempo pop-R&B tracks, songs that aren’t quite ballads but definitely aren’t bangers, setting into a mood that’s deceptively romantic but on closer inspection is more vulnerable, like a friend heartspilling over dinner.

It’s at the album’s midpoint that she really starts to explore. There’s a slightly jarring shift in mood with the comparatively sprightly outlier “Boy Is Mine” (not the Brandy/Monica hit or any other previous song with that title), which Grande has described as a “big sister” to the leaked but unreleased song “Fantasize.” It was originally written for a “parody of a ‘90s girl group” to perform on an unspecified television series, and although it’s been significantly reworked, some of the vibe remains, which is probably why the song feels slightly out of place with the others.

The pace picks up suddenly with the ebullient first single, “Yes, And?” — and its obvious Madonna/”Vogue” references — before easing into the achingly bittersweet “We Can’t Be Friends,” a tearjerker of a pop song if ever there was one and arguably the emotional core of the album. It’s followed by the deceptively spare “I Wish I Hated You,” with an unusual melody — you’re never quite sure where it’s going, something she’s attributed to a longstanding Imogen Heap influence — that rests atop a music box-like instrumental loop and gentle bass notes. “Imperfect for You” also covers new terrain, with a heavily treated guitar and and an army of overdubbed Arianas dropping some subtle Beatlesque touches (with flashes of “You Won’t See Me” from “Rubber Soul”).

The album closes with words of wisdom from Grande’s “Nonna” (grandmother), who is heard talking about something she feels is vitally important to a successful marriage. “Never go to bed without kissin’ goodnight,” she says. “And if you don’t feel comfortable doing it… you’re in the wrong place.”

In its way, that passage is the most romantic moment on “Eternal Sunshine,” and a perfect ending note to a true coming-of-age album — a snapshot of an ideal of love that seems like a fairy tale, but is still worth reaching for.

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