Ariana Grande
Sweetener


3.0
good

Review

by Will R. STAFF
August 21st, 2018 | 420 replies


Release Date: 2018 | Tracklist

Review Summary: Wrong Heads Ariana Grande Wrong Bodies Max Martin Pharrell Williams TBHits | Cartoon Animation Cool Fun 47 Minutes

In his 2017 essay “Something is wrong on the internet,” technology writer James Bridle delineates the horrifying relationship between young children who watch YouTube videos, creators who make those videos, and the YouTube recommendation system which connects them. The author’s central conceit is that when relatively unsupervised machine-learning tools are applied to the experiences of particular sets of end-users, particularly ones as powerless and impressionable as children, deeply disturbing things can result. Bridle argues that the relentless regurgitation of algorithmically salient keywords and the search engine optimization power of including them in a video encourages low- and mid-budget YouTube producers to churn out content packaged within recommendation-friendly templates at a breakneck pace. He examines a couple of these templates, which are at best innocuous (toy unboxing videos, for example) and at worst content that under no circumstances should be recommended to children (bootlegged videos of Peppa Pig being tortured by a dentist or drinking bleach are tame compared to others online).

One of the trends Bridle discusses is “Wrong Head,” a style of video in which the creator separates cartoon heads from their associated bodies and shuffles them among other now-headless bodies for a while. Though certainly closer to the innocuous end of the bizarre-kids’-video spectrum, these videos are nevertheless unsettling enough that most of the featured characters’ target demographic should not be watching them, especially without parental oversight. (I know I would have had nightmares for days if I’d unknowingly clicked on any of these videos at age six or seven.) Elsa’s head plastered upon Wreck-it Ralph’s neck isn’t inherently inappropriate, but it is certainly uncanny to see that head smiling or giggling blithely as though nothing were wrong, and, as Bridle notes, it is even more so to see that head sobbing as it grasps the magnitude of that situation’s wrongness.

That’s Sweetener in a nutshell. The album is essentially an exercise in “Wrong Head,” Ariana Grande’s head passed between the bodies of the two producers who dominate its sound. Grande, who for her past two albums had entrusted Swedish savant Max Martin with shaping the majority of her artistic signature, opted to include the equally prodigious Pharrell Williams as part of her primary songwriting team. Sweetener, in no small part thanks to Pharrell’s iconoclastic distillations of her bombast, has been touted as Grande’s most groundbreaking, boundary-pushing album yet. It is certainly her least straightforward, the streamlined perfection of Martin’s work inverted, twisted, and shredded by Pharrell’s spartan 808s and hi-hat hisses.

Unfortunately, the latter producer’s mechanical coldness tends not to suit Grande very well. The singer’s voice is stunningly emotive, but when she restrains it to suit Pharrell’s compositions the result is inexcusably bland, Elsa sobbing on top of a body that isn’t hers. Of course, it doesn’t help that his productions are wildly inconsistent; while their highs together are astronomically high, their lows are even lower. I cannot say enough good things about “the light is coming,” sinewy kicks and extraterrestrial bleeps strangling its vocal sample as lithely and effortlessly as a python while Grande breathily kisses off the song’s subject. I similarly cannot say enough bad things about the title track, a shambling Frankenstein of bizarre pop-music ephemera - an uncomfortable, memeable triplet-flow chorus from Lil Pump’s playbook, flat piano chords from gnash’s, and ad-libs from, uh, LeBron’s?- stitched together with the fastidious attention to detail of the aforementioned YouTube Kids algorithm.

Moreover, the transitions between the two producers’ modi operandi induce a mood whiplash painful enough to stonewall the album’s flow. Pharrell’s kitchen-sink minimalism and Martin’s tightly-controlled maximalism complement each other poorly, and the dueling sounds spend their time fighting for prominence instead of symbiotically bringing out the best in each other. Many of the songs here work better as isolated singles than in the context of Sweetener as a whole. “God is a woman” on its own is utterly majestic, Grande a firework soaring over the glorious neon of Martin protégé Ilya’s wormhole bass; “R.E.M,” a Pharrell-penned preceding track so torpid that even Grande asks “does this end?” near its conclusion, robs the former song’s opening guitars of their otherwise supernatural power. “borderline,” an impossibly suave encapsulation of the Neptunes’ sound at its best, but right after the colossal groove of “no tears left to cry” its sinuous bass feel like drinking three cups of coffee too many the morning after a late night out.

To be fair, Pharrell’s incongruity is partially attributable to the way Grande has spent the past half-decade defining her sound. She and Martin have worked so closely together for so long that his sonic fingerprint is inextricably intertwined with hers. When she’s firing on all cylinders - “Love Me Harder,” “Problem,” “Into You” - Grande makes the whole world spin, singing so commandingly and tempestuously over such ruthlessly grandiloquent production that nothing else matters until the song ends and the listener can finally reacclimate to the world around them. Martin’s brand of pop production is defined by that same immediate viscerality, and - as with their previous collaborations - their work together here is unconscionably powerful, particularly the slithering bass of “everytime,” embedding itself so far in the listener’s gut that it’s hard to imagine life before it could have even happened. When Grande swaps him out for someone else, though, be it Pharrell and his disaffected cool or the aqueous, immersive melodies of frequent collaborator TBHits’ Chainsmokers-leaning works on the album’s back quarter, it sounds wrong. Grande’s head is usually in the right place when it’s over Martin; when it’s not, the result ends up uncanny and inhuman.

Isn’t that appropriate, though?After all, this album is called Sweetener. “Sweetener” implies something augmentative and artificial, Splenda added to coffee to make it more palatable. Grande is adding herself to several distinct sonic palates, putting her own indelible stamp on fundamentally disparate productions while letting them exist in different spaces. It doesn’t sound as free and natural as much of her previous work, but maybe that awkward hollowness is the point. We know Grande enjoys making people squirm: she’s laughed about “all her friends le[aving] crying” from a Jaws-themed birthday party she hosted when she was five, and says she’s “still that way” years later. If she’s trying to unsettle her listeners, she’s certainly succeeding.

That said, I think there’s a fundamental difference between playing with discomfort and playing with discomfort in a productive way, and I’m not convinced Sweetener is the latter. On a perfect album, Grande should be able to swirl a myriad of diffuse instrumentation into a potent brew with her lightning-rod vocal presence, but that’s not what happened here. Off-kilter pop can be revelatory, but awkwardly and inexplicably wrong-sounding off-kilter pop - especially when threaded around particularly effective pop playing to previously-acknowledged strengths - usually isn’t anything more than the surface-level reaction it evokes. “Wrong Head” videos, in wholesale slapping one head onto another barely-related body, are disconcerting without resolution, only satisfying when the proper parts align; Sweetener, unfortunately, is no different.



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3.2
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Comments:Add a Comment 
Trebor.
Staff Reviewer
August 21st 2018


56405 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0

whoa

Brostep
Staff Reviewer
August 21st 2018


4469 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0

things mentioned in review (s/o no hyperlinks):

Something is wrong on the internet (which is 10000% worth a read if you have 20 minutes): https://medium.com/@jamesbridle/something-is-wrong-on-the-internet-c39c471271d2

Wrong heads example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w_fSpAaiDCA

LeBron adlib: https://www.reddit.com/r/barstoolsports/comments/

7q94jj/can_someone_explain_sheeesh_to_me/

Ari's 5th birthday party: https://www.billboard.com/articles/news/6221482/

billboard-cover-ariana-grande-on-fame-freddy-krueger-and-her-freaky-past



back on my bullshit lads. god do I wish I liked this more than I do

MasterSplinter
August 21st 2018


29 Comments


One of the best reviews I've read this year.

I really liked Dangerous Woman, but I couldn't agree more with your opinion, this just... doesn't sound right.

JS19
August 21st 2018


7045 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0

Wow a review that justifies its length? Consider me floored

Digging: Bersarin Quartett - Bersarin Quartett

LaKeSRiVeRn
August 21st 2018


18 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

This is one of the best reviews I’ve ever read. You encapsulated exactly how I felt listening to this. I’ve listened to the album a few times already and it is just so easy to point out the Martin/Pharrell interchanges that it is almost as if ariana made two albums with different goals, themes, and concepts and decided to slap them together.



I personally think the album is great, and I love the fact that Ariana does not mind making songs not meant for the radio. No tears, god is a woman, and breathin’ Are really the only radio friendly songs on the album. Most of the others are much more inaccessible to the pop ear, but really show off the incredible layering and production of her voice.



Overall I’m impressed that Sputnik is taking her this seriously.



SowingSeason
Moderator
August 21st 2018


29859 Comments

Album Rating: 2.5

Yes definitely a superb write-up (which is normal for Will!)

This was a major disappointment for me. I've already forgotten about it and it's only been out a few days.

LaKeSRiVeRn
August 21st 2018


18 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

I can certainly understand that. One of the biggest issues with pop music today is that it is programmed for simplicity and accessibility and so the majority of its product is quite bland and forgettable (i.e chainsmokers).



The differentiator for grande is the voice and how it can become a driving instrument behind her main vocals. The harmonizing and sweeping runs that she creates (and then gets heavily mixed) are pretty magical and make the music more filling.

SowingSeason
Moderator
August 21st 2018


29859 Comments

Album Rating: 2.5

Yeah don't get me wrong I'm a big Grande fan, she's got a massive voice, and I loved Dangerous Woman

I feel like this is too forgettable to be good pop music, and not interesting enough to qualify as art...

MO
August 21st 2018


22527 Comments


great review bro

BigBlob
August 21st 2018


4595 Comments


feel sorry for the people who work in music shops who will arrange this album the wrong way up

rabidfish
August 21st 2018


4895 Comments

Album Rating: 1.5

tbh it's a dumb idea for an album cover

Digging: Haruomi Hosono - Hochono House

Conmaniac
Contributing Reviewer
August 21st 2018


24349 Comments


great read tbh, def gonna get on that internet article. prob wont listen to this in full either but I wasn't planning on it before this review

Darius the Great
August 21st 2018


19902 Comments


"feel sorry for the people who work in music shops who will arrange this album the wrong way up"

Ive already seen it a couple of times at the record store in the mall..

TheSpirit
Contributing Reviewer
August 21st 2018


24951 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Will! I miss your writing so much, I was really happy to see that you reviewed this. Love how you weave bigger picture cultural analysis into your pieces.



As for the album, my gf has been listening to it constantly since it came out and as a result, I have too. Some of the arrangements are a bit too sparse for my liking, but overall this is a really enjoyable album..

Digging: Akasha - Canticles of the Sepulchral Deity

Conmaniac
Contributing Reviewer
August 21st 2018


24349 Comments


yeah that internet article was a fascinating and disturbing read...

Snake.
August 21st 2018


21500 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0

lmao best summary in a looooooong time

Kalopsia
August 21st 2018


3117 Comments

Album Rating: 2.5

i'mma wait for a greatest hits album when she quits music in a few years.



it's a shame Focus wasn't on DW, that song is a banger.

Tyrael
August 21st 2018


21113 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0

Really really really disappointed in this release, hope it grows on me like Dangerous Woman did. I still play that album on a regular basis...

Cormano
August 21st 2018


1386 Comments


great review, I can't stand Ariana Grande

luci
August 21st 2018


10559 Comments


marvelous review. the article you linked sets up your thesis so well here. thanks for delivering a thoughtful piece



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