Ariana Grande’s new album is sweet and sour

ariStream on Spotify

Score: 7/10

Add to library: ‘No Tears Left to Cry’, ‘God is a Woman’, ‘Breathin’

Sweetener is Ariana Grande’s fourth album, and it’s a bit soured by its over-reliance on Pharrell William’s dry, faux-funk beats. Considering the two hits pulled from the LP – ‘No Tears Left to Cry’ and ‘God is a Woman’ – are both Max Martin cuts, surely the writing was on that wall that something wasn’t quite working?

If Williams’ productions win critical acclaim, it will be from journalists on a tight schedule. His songs are interesting enough for a minute, but Pharrell soon depletes his sachet of tricks. Not that you’d notice if you’re prone to the skip button and have a glut of albums to review by midnight.

Fortunately, I have time on my hands.

The Nicki Minaj-assisted promo single ‘The Light is Coming’ is admirably mental island-tinged pop, full of white-hot percussion and digital grind – until you realise the irate male vocal sample has been looped without any plan or artistic intention. It’s as if Pharrell built a skeletal first draft in the studio, popped out for a coffee, and never came back.

Ariana keeps her end of the bargain on ‘Successful’, toasting to herself and womankind with slinky cool, but her effort is somewhat undone by cheesy groaning keyboards. ‘Borderline’ harkens back to The Neptunes’ early-00s album fillers, and I now understand Kelis’ decision to cease working with them exclusively in 2003.

To Pharrell’s credit, the Piña Colada-flavoured ‘Blazed’ and the dreamy goodness of ‘R.E.M’ are fully realised successes, and prove Ariana’s collaborative instincts weren’t too off-the-mark.

Electro slowies like ‘Better Off’ and ‘Goodnight and Go’ offer pleasing restraint, but the first single ‘No Tears’ still towers over the album. Max Martin has crafted a daring piece of theatrical dance-pop here, as laden with UK garage as it is with heavenly wails.

This is Ariana’s first project since the terrorist attack at her concert at Manchester Arena last May tragically claimed 23 victims. In choosing the first single, Ariana and her team had to strike a delicate balance – uplifting but not glib, respectful but not in mourning. And they’ve passed with flying colours. It’s just a shame the rest of Sweetener doesn’t always hit the same sweet spot.

 

[Music] Top 35 Tracks of 2013 (#5 – #1)

5. Mutya Keisha Siobhan – Flatline, TBA

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Before being swallowed into an never-ending maelstrom of pushbacks and false starts, it seemed like the S.S. MKS was in pretty competent hands. The girls’ story – that of three girl group members who were each alienated from a once-credible British institution over a period of nine years – was as hipster-friendly a narrative as anybody who performed on CD:UK could ever hope for. A sly A&R team hooked the trio up with a clutch of hot-property producers including Sia, Naughty Boy, and Dev Hynes, who gained notoriety helming acclaimed tracks for Solange and Sky Ferreira. “Flatline” chases the sleek, disenchanted 80’s sound of 2012 favourites “Losing You” and “Everything Is Embarrassing”, but rather ironically lacks the sugary energy of either.

The opening lyric of “Don’t say it, no / Please wait till were sober” is delivered with a depressed choke by Siobhan Donaghy, whose own 2008 solo album “Ghosts” would be the most obvious reference point were it not also so obviously inspired by the work of Kate Bush. Hard, thundering drums and riotous male-led battle cries evoke memories of “Hounds of Love”, although it appears someone onboard was smart enough to corroborate “Flatline” against a checklist of the original line-up’s own idiosyncrasies. Mutya Buena’s gravelly tone and Donaghy’s verbose lyricism both make appearances, while Keisha Buchanan’s trademark adlibs draw a devastating break-up anthem to a strangely euphoric close.

4. St. Lucia – Elevate, When The Night

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This is St. Lucia’s second appearance on our list, and it’s a tribute to the South African-born musician’s range as a performer that he can just as easily put his name to a relentless  EDM banger such as  “Modern Hearts” as he does to more organic fare like this. That’s not to say “Elevate” is lacking in thrills; conversely, it’s something of an aural carnival. Gilded synths swirl like an ice cream van’s siren, while swathes of electronic fuzz aim to leave your head swimming. The ecstasy of the song’s production offers a distraction from the dark subject matter; “Elevate” is ostensibly a love letter to a rather tragic character. “No one / elevates you / elevates you, now”, St. Lucia (née John –Philip Grobler) belts throughout the song’s chorus, presumably to a loyal if despondent friend. It’s tempting to see the irony of such a lyric being used as such a soaring, undeniable hook, but perhaps that’s the point; sometimes a song isn’t enough.

Not that you’ll be focusing on subtext by the halfway mark. The real magic of “Elevate” comes with the arrival of a morbidly obese bassline, squalling trumpets and a barely intelligible chant that dominates the track’s denouement. If it sounds like a mess, let it be known that this flourish is achieved with a stupefying sense of elegance, resulting in a song as colourful, bittersweet and regrettably brief as life itself.

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[Music] Top 35 Tracks of 2013 (#35 – #21)

35. Robin Thicke – Blurred Lines [feat. Pharrell and T.I.], Blurred Lines

Available from iTunes

YouTube-Bans-RB-Singers-Video-+18-2As divisive as the track may be, it would be churlish to ignore Robin Thicke’s monstrously successful ode to dodgy dance floor-based ethics when summing up the last year in music. The presence of the currently infallible Pharrell Williams and a warm, Marvin Gaye-aping instrumental – not to mention a notoriously ‘stripped-back’ promo video – combined to create a heady cocktail that had punters checking their social consciousnesses at the door. For better or for worse, “Blurred Lines” is the sound of pure carnal lust left unspoiled by the pressures of political correctness.

34. Britney Spears – Work Bitch, Britney Jean

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It would seem the record-buying public didn’t appreciate the irony of being told to work harder by one of the laziest ladies in pop, which may explain their apathy towards the first offering from Spears’ eighth studio album, Britney Jean. Following the ubiquity of last year’s “Scream & Shout”, launching with a Will.i.am-penned banger was a no-brainer, but no one could anticipate that their reunion could yield a song as devoid of grey matter as “Work Bitch”. What the track lacks in brains, however, it makes up for with the strength of its steely balls. Eschewing any form of tangible structure, relying on only a hard, repetitive beat and Spears’ trademark British accent, the song feels as alien to the wants of radio as the woman singing it feels removed from the wants of the industry, and in that sense it makes for a fascinating listen.

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