NQGRD #006: thank u, next

Why on earth, I hear you ask, are you reviewing an Ariana Grande album? A very good question, and one I shall attempt to answer as concisely as possible…

Over on The Fall Forum, one regular contributor often posts things regarding aspects of US popular culture (e.g. Molly McAleer – no, me neither) and is frequently a little exasperated and perplexed by my lack of interest in such celebrity news. Cleanville Tziabatz (which is his slightly unlikely moniker) and I have had several exchanges regarding my ambivalence regarding such things. However, when he posted a review of thank u, next and suggested that I would be too closed-minded to even listen, I had to take issue. I am not prepared to even dip my toe into the world of (what he insists on describing as) ‘slebs’; but I will always have a crack at music that someone else considers worthy of a listen.

Before I even start on this though, it’s probably worth pointing out that there will be very many points of reference on this album (both musically and lyrically) that will be lost on me. I am a nearly 50 year old man whose children have very little interest in any pop/chart music; I hardly watch any TV and remain blissfully ignorant of 99% of celebrity culture. I’m not one of those people who just listen to the same things that I did in my teens/20s, though; it’s just that new music I listen to generally tends to be of a difficult / angular / challenging / experimental bent. It certainly doesn’t usually involve artists whose most popular song on Spotify has had nearly 600m listens…

Thank U, Next album cover.png

Until she was involved in the Manchester terrorist incident, I’d never actually heard of Ariana, and her involvement in that incident was, before this, the sole fact I knew about her. Googling her, I found that she started out in some sort of teen sitcom called Victorious (I looked this up on YouTube, but was left none the wiser, really). I also learned that she has sold a shedload of music, has broken lots of records, has experimented with ‘trap’ (whatever that might be) and has dated several people that I’ve never heard of (I’m presuming that Pete Davidson is not he of Dr Who and All Creatures Great & Small fame).

As such, I had no particular preconceptions; however, the dismissive, disdainful tone of the album title suggests a certain level of sassiness and fuck-you attitude. So I guess I am expecting a sort of updated version of Pink…

Before I started listening, the use of lower case and “U” immediately put me in mind of Prince. Whilst I was by no measure a huge fan of the purple one, I do admire quite a few of his songs. One of the things I did like about his best material was its sparseness; where he was prepared to leave gaps and not necessarily fill every space with noise and production. There certainly seems to be a Prince influence here; or at least there’s a similar approach to leaving space for emphasis. The rhythm track is understated and delicate and there’s a lot of room for the track to breathe and circle.

Everything is very carefully placed. The cynical side of me imagines that this was decided by some form of record company committee, but even if that is the case, you can’t deny that, as an opener, it’s open-ended, intriguing and scene-setting. There’s a soul/R&B flavour undercutting everything, most notably in the clipped guitar arpeggios; the gradual build, denoted by the orchestral/string stabs, is effective without being overly grandiose (although it teeters on the brink).

The aspect that leaves me undecided at this point is the vocal. A large proportion of what I listen to generally is either instrumental, or is characterised by idiosyncratic (and not necessarily very tuneful) vocalists such as Mark E Smith, Billy Bragg, Nick Cave or Mark Kozelek. I have not a misogynist bone in my body, I swear (and my better half would back me up on this), but female vocalists in my music collection are far and few between. Mariah Carey’s All I Want… and Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You are my idea of auditory hell. There is trace of the overblown Carey/Houston approach in the ‘only-dogs-can-hear’ notes towards the end of the track; however, overall, I was impressed with the understated and measured tone. Plus, going back to the production, the selective layering of the vocal tracks is pretty clever.

I strongly suspect that I will struggle to empathise with many of the lyrical themes on the album, for reasons that I imagine are obvious. I will probably have to google most of them as well, as – at the risk of sounding like my father watching TOTP with me back in the 80s – I can’t always understand the words. imagine, though, is pretty straightforward lyrically, being about that first flush of excitement when you’re with someone new and everything seems suddenly intimate and wonderful; like you’d suddenly invented being a couple. Lines like ‘how my face fits so good in your neck’ capture that feeling simplistically but effectively, although I’m not sure about the rhyming of ‘secrets’ with ‘creep shit’.

It opens with a relatively lo-fi little keyboard loop, one that you could almost imagine being the basis of a Boards of Canada song, and continues in a pretty understated fashion throughout, with only scant intrusions by bass or percussion. There are some slightly spaced-out strings that have a slightly late Beatles air to them towards the end.

Not what I expected: after the sparse, crisp down-tempo opener, I thought there’d be a classic track two ‘banger’; this feels more like a penultimate track (the one that prefaces the epic closer). I quite admire her for sticking this here, although the melody is a little predictable, the lyrics are slightly inane (‘I’m a little messed up / but I can hide it when I’m all dressed up’) and the vocal verges on the twee.

Pleasant enough, but rather limp and insipid. Whereas imagine made me sit up and listen, NASA just drifted by apologetically.

Ramps up the tempo a little, with a more aggressive beat than the last two and has a slightly ska/reggae-inflected rhythm. Lyrics are a bit banal and awkward here: ‘You’re the one that I’m thinkin’ / Got me feelin’ so incredible / would you mind maybe linkin’?’ It’s a little dull and she’s losing my attention by this point, to be honest.

fake smile
Opens with an intriguing, scratchy R&B gospel sample before settling into a delicate if rather obvious groove. The lyrics seem to be about the pressure of leading a public life and have a heartfelt but somewhat banal quality: ‘I read the things they write about me
/ Hear what they’re saying on the TV, it’s crazy’. The use of profanity (‘Fuck a fake smile’) is jarring and gives it a bit of edge, especially in contrast to the pretty chorus melody, but otherwise this is also a bit bland.

bad idea
A bit of a diversion musically, as this opens with a clipped, chorus-heavy guitar line that verges on Cure/Police territory. But then it just lays a bog-standard R&B/soul melody over the top that once again is a little predictable. It’s not without its merits: the echoing, childlike backing vocals are quite arresting, and the orchestral interludes add a bit of colour; but overall it’s a little pedestrian.

make up
A paean to make-up sex (‘I like to f*ck with you / just to make up with you’), this has much more about it than the last few tracks. The jagged rhythm gives it an edgy feel and the stuttering vocals have a lascivious air.

The dissonant, ghostly chords have an almost shoegaze/MBV tone to them, which provides an intriguing contrast to the smooth R&B vocals. It ultimately dissolves into a wall of syrupy strings. There’s the germ of of an interesting idea here that isn’t quite resolved.

in my head
The understated rhythm track is nicely sparse and atmospheric, but this feels like the same vocal melody is being trotted out again. Not sure about rhyming ‘tennis shoes’ with ‘issues’ either.

7 rings
A slow and sultry groove based around ‘My Favourite Things’, this is an inevitable example of the lyrics being beyond my frame of reference: I have no idea what, for example, ‘My wrist, stop watchin’, my neck is flossin’ / Make big deposits, my gloss is poppin” might mean. There is something very engaging about her vocal here, though: sassy but vulnerable.

thank u, next
This is another one where my lack of knowledge of / interest in popular culture might be limiting my understanding, as I have no idea who the Sean, Ricky and Malcolm referred to might be (if they are indeed real people). It’s one of the stronger melodies on the album, and is comparatively jaunty, possibly verging on flimsy.

break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored
It’s a great title, to be sure. However, the track – a light, reggae-ish lilt – is pretty unremarkable.

I am glad I listened to this, if only for the opening imagine, which is a startlingly stark and beautiful piece of music. The rest of it has its ups and downs, although I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was nothing I actively disliked. Having said that, most of it is far too smooth and bland for my tastes. That said, it is carefully and cleverly put together, without feeling overly ‘designed by committee’. I’m unlikely to listen to any of it again, to be honest, but it was worthwhile enough giving her a few hours of my time.


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