You can imagine how Ariana Grande’s new album might’ve turned out.
The pop singer’s first record since the terrorist bombing that killed 22 people last year as they left a concert of hers at England’s Manchester Arena, “Sweetener” would likely have surprised few if it had arrived Friday as a heavy-hearted work of mournful reflection.
As that title suggests, though, Grande has created something different: an album about how hard it is to move beyond tragedy — and how good it feels when that finally happens.
“Right now I’m in a state of mind I wanna be in like all the time,” she sings in “No Tears Left to Cry,” an ebullient, 1990s-style dance-pop jam. “I’m picking it up, picking it up / Loving, I’m living, so we turning up.”
Do those lines sound glib on paper? They’re anything but when delivered by Grande, who at age 25 possesses one of her generation’s biggest, most expressive voices: an instrument capable of communicating all the emotional labor required to reach a place of love and light. Another thing that’s easy to imagine: Jimmy Fallon’s relief that he’d booked Grande, and not one of her lighter-weight peers, for his late-night show Thursday after news broke of Aretha Franklin’s death. Grande’s stirring rendition of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” was a stunner.
“Sweetener” is full of inward-looking reassurance, as in the dance hall-inflected “The Light Is Coming” — “to give back everything the darkness stole,” as Grande puts it — and “Get Well Soon,” where she layers her voice into a one-woman choir preaching a gospel of self-care.
Yet the album is also clear about who helped Grande find her way out of the darkness, and that’s Pete Davidson, the impish “Saturday Night Live” star to whom the singer is reportedly engaged.
Half the songs here — including one titled “Pete Davidson” — describe the rejuvenating power of fresh romance. There’s the bouncy title track, about someone who “bring[s] the bitter taste to a halt,” and there’s Grande’s liberal interpretation (featuring some original lyrics) of “Goodnight n Go,” an ode to a cute crush by the British pop eccentric Imogen Heap.
“R.E.M,” with a pillowy electro-doo-wop beat, sets a meet-cute with a guy in Grande’s dreams, while “God Is a Woman” promises that’s what her lover will say after they spend a night alone together.
“If you confess, you might get blessed,” she sings over humid trap-style drums, “See if you deserve what comes next.”
“God Is a Woman” is hardly the singer’s first song about sex; Grande, who came up as the star of a Nickelodeon show, has been working for years to shake off her kiddie-core past.
But “Sweetener” has a gravitas that feels new — the result of her life-altering experience in Manchester, no doubt, but also of the weird sounds and unconventional song structures she crafted with a team of producers led by Pharrell Williams and Max Martin.
The songs are shiny and catchy of course; they’re competing for your attention in the pop marketplace with stuff by Taylor Swift and Post Malone and Shawn Mendes. (Indeed, you can watch Grande compete in real time Monday night when she performs on MTV’s Video Music Awards.)
Yet there’s an uncommon sense of self-possession to this album — a kind of ecstatic calm — that sets it apart from everything else on Top 40 radio right now.
It’s as though Grande feels that by sticking it out to make “Sweetener” she’s already won the game.
She may be right.