Ariana Grande Andrew Chan

In her latest album, Eternal Sunshine, the pop artist reveals
a mind far from spotless.

Eternal Sunshine, by Ariana Grande, Republic

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Arguably the preeminent inheritor of the diva-pop sound that dominated the 1990s, Ariana Grande has always seemed most at ease when blasting her soprano into the heavens. Her seventh studio album, Eternal Sunshine, doesn’t skimp on virtuosity, but on my first listen I noticed how frequently the singer-songwriter contrasts her trademark extravagance with a more constricted gesture, grabbing hold of a single note and hitting it over and over again across multiple consecutive syllables. Listen, for instance, to the outro of the title track, in which Grande gently delivers panic-stricken verbiage (“deep breaths, tight chest, life, death”) as a series of staccato C-sharps, her own cherubic, ping-ponging background vocals punctuating the insistent monotone. This motif turns up in nearly half the songs on the record, suggesting a committed effort to carve out moments of stasis amid a terrain of shifting sonic details. At times, Grande draws us into a space so intimate it’s as if we were being enlisted to monitor her heartbeat.

In light of Eternal Sunshine’s preoccupation with loss and emotional withdrawal, these repetitive melodic phrases also conjure the image of someone compulsively tapping delete on a keyboard. Named after Michel Gondry’s 2004 indie hit Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a surreal drama that imagines what would happen if people could permanently erase their painful memories, this record is as marked by romantic disappointments as its predecessor, 2020’s Positions, was by sexual appetites. Every piece of writing about this latest release has obligatorily mentioned the gossip generated by Grande’s recent divorce from a real-estate agent she married three years ago and her controversial new relationship with an actor she grew close to on the set of her long-gestating film project, Wicked. What we have here, then, is not just a breakup album but a grotesquely high-profile one. It’s easy to imagine that, amid all the bad vibes and peanut-gallery chatter, the artist might be longing for a brain-scrubbing of her own.

None of the songs on Eternal Sunshine contain as much tabloid-baiting material as 2018’s “Thank U, Next,” which found Grande capitalizing on the nosiness of her audience by name-dropping four of her celebrity exes. Unlike that career-defining hit, her new music is a contemplative, conflicted look at love’s discomforts, exemplified by the string of internal monologues that open the album. In “Intro (End of the World),” the singer poses questions—“How can I tell if I’m in the right relationship? / Aren’t you really supposed to know that shit?”—in a tone of eyelash-batting naivete before cheerfully succumbing to the kind of amorous delusion that tends to get her into trouble. In “Don’t Wanna Break Up Again,” she keeps her cool as she describes a lover turning up the volume on the television to drown out her crying, then resolves not to retaliate with her habitual mind games.

Grande, who began pursuing pop stardom in her early teenage years, has long taken her cues from Mariah Carey. But despite the similarities between the two women—high-femme personas, eclectic musical influences, alternately breathy and robust vocal styles—Grande has never acquired her idol’s gift for expressing abject, masochistic passions. Even when she’s wailing at the top of her chest voice, her performances are typically frictionless, free of resistance or spontaneous lamentation. Here, she compensates for her lack of intensity with an ambivalence that occasionally calls to mind Carey’s 1997 classic Butterfly, an introspective record that anticipated the dissolution of her first marriage.

The Ariana we hear on Eternal Sunshine has reached a similar crossroads, a stretch of adulthood where the confidence of youth has lost most of its currency. (On the record’s sole nonmusical interlude, the YouTube astrologer Diana Garland frames this transformation as a “Saturn return.”) The singer’s girlish, squeaky-clean timbre, untarnished by more than a decade of fame, clashes with these signs of maturity in intriguing, moving ways. You can hear this tension on “We Can’t Be Friends (Wait for Your Love),” a portrait of romantic failure in which the heroine tries to take stock of reality, following her self-assessments with scrupulous qualifications (“I don’t wanna tiptoe / but I don’t wanna hide / but I don’t wanna feed this monstrous fire”).

Since the beginning of her career, Grande has worked with an impressive array of musicians, many of whom are rooted in the world of R & B. For Eternal Sunshine, the singer has scaled back her team, installing at the helm Max Martin and his associate Ilya Salmanzadeh, the infallible Swedish hitmakers who have supplied Grande with some of her most straightforwardly pop material (including 2014’s “Problem” and 2018’s “No Tears Left to Cry”). The pair are known for anthemic, arena-ready hooks, but here they favor darker, more impressionistic productions that let both the subtleties and the dazzling intricacies of the singer’s vocal arrangements take center stage.

Martin and Salmanzadeh establish a cohesive aesthetic flexible enough to accommodate different styles. The record’s most successful foray into R & B, “Bye,” is an unusually magnanimous kiss-off in which Grande congratulates an ex for having given it his best shot, then runs off to meet a gal pal who has “just pulled up in the driveway”—a blasé farewell made spectacular by a glistening disco backdrop of strings, brass, and punchy synth chords. “Yes, And?,” the resplendently defiant lead single, is a rare diva-led dance track in which the singer barely deigns to raise her voice above a sigh, even when chiding her haters for their puritanical judgments. On the opposite end of the spectrum is “Imperfect for You,” a ballad propelled by the clang of a dissonant guitar, the sort of psychedelic flourish you might find in a film score by Jon Brion (the composer for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).

The solace that pop music can offer is regularly undercut by a sense of unease. Even at the end of the album, when Grande has settled into another man’s arms, there’s a reminder of love’s contingent and contradictory nature. In the wonderfully strange “Ordinary Things,” she explains how the arrival of a new soulmate has taught her to cherish life’s little banalities. The lyrics are sweet, but the song’s thin, slightly sour atmosphere, built on an interplay of funereal horns and a nagging, mechanical pulse, seems to tell a more complicated story. The track closes with audio of the singer’s grandmother advising her on how to sustain a relationship: “Never go to bed without kissing goodnight . . . And if you can’t and if you don’t feel comfortable doing it, you’re in the wrong place—get out!”

It’s that “if” that lingers in the mind. How does an incorrigible romantic reconcile her belief in the transcendent power of love with the knowledge that the most satisfying loves are inherently conditional (predicated as they are on mutual effort and care)? In the past, Grande might have shooed away such a quandary with a sassy dismissal or a therapy-derived affirmation, but this queasy, often beautiful album finds her looking the question dead in the face.

Andrew Chan is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of Why Mariah Carey Matters, published by University of Texas Press.

In her latest album, Eternal Sunshine, the pop artist reveals a mind far from spotless.
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