Ariana Grande thank u, next

[Republic; 2019]

Styles: Gothic Romance, pop music, the greatest love of all
Others: Rihanna, Taylor Swift, the Brontë sisters

I hope you find love. Don’t let that be too much to ask. “Why can’t you imagine a world like that?”

Not love like reductive metaphor, no string of useless monogamies. Not unless you like it like that. Not love that restricts or diminishes or punishes or inflicts. Let it be painful when it must; let’s not call it love when all it wants is hurt. Not love that bores or gelatinizes and, please, not love that clutches you toward bruises and whispers you, too much or want no more in your ear. “If love be rough with you, be rough with love!” And: “I’ma scream and shout for what I love.”

Let’s hope we find love. Because we heave through bed sheets at middays, feel weights and debts of all our bad days pressing our sternums, gauzing our throats. We have lost. We will lose. How can we want past that loss? Charlotte Brontë wrote:”The evils that now and then wring a groan from my heart lie in my position not that I am a single woman and likely to remain a single woman, but because I am a lonely woman and likely to be lonely.” Or, Ari: “I can’t fake another smile/ I can’t fake like I’m alright.”

A breath from a cracked car window, a squeeze on the shoulder when we get on the dance floor, thank u, next is the sound of hoping toward love. It’s the bend and the flex, the swerve of unfucking towards re-formation. It’s the new definitive song from a still-evolving voice that continues to render taking care as a viable solution to all the loss we feel. Like lip imprints on cheeks you already forgot, like a Brontë novel, its romance is of hauntings and hangovers, the holdovers of old traumas and the transmutation of scar tissue into feathered boas pulled tight like strong sinew. thank u, next is wanting a future.

It begins with the bass boom of romance, the bubbly echoes of fantasy in “imagine,” and it ends with a little kiss-off, a number left in lipstick: “Say I’m trippin’ and it ain’t right/ But you without me ain’t nice.” Is that an *NSYNC nod? Are we biting The Sound of Music? Sure, but sweetened and wobbled, converted into raw material for Ariana’s want. thank u, next sometimes sounds similar to last year’s Sweetener, but where that felt titanic and of a massive world, this lies in the sheets and words we live in every day. The hooks are just as sticky, but the sounds feel low and hot, woozy, like bright-colored tapes left all day in the sun. The biggest “imagine” gets are some strings at the end. “needy” is woozy synth, a soft snap, a melted popsicle, and “make up” plinks a warped kids’ piano, a bubblegum’s coo. “NASA” and the title track cruise inscrutable grooves but never approach the sheer force of “Breathin” or “No Tears Left to Cry.”

Because thank u, next builds on Sweetener by switching modes of scale. It’s less about looking at the world than being by yourself, more focused on the textures of memory than our actions stemming from it. “fake smile” validates being how you feel, which is still a revolutionary thing to sing about. “needy” admits to the way past traumas can impact our personality (“Sorry if I’m up and down a lot/ Sorry that I think I’m not enough/ And sorry if I say sorry way too much”) without ever apologizing for taking up space in the first place. Joyously, again and again, thank u, next establishes boundaries and radicalizes space-keeping as self-care. “NASA” knows loving heals: “I can’t really miss you if I’m with you/ And when I miss you, it’ll change the way I kiss you,” but it also knows nothing feels as good as the space you know you need: “Baby, you know time apart is beneficial/ It’s like I’m the universe and you’ll be N-A-S-A.” That’s a very important thing to hear in a pop song!

That space and scale translates to its instrument: thank u, next is also Ariana’s most stunning vocal album. Always bombastic and inclined toward ever-reaching virtuosity, on these 12 tracks, that voice bups and gulps and fries and grinds, low yuh yuh’s and guttural slides and then, when your ear’s right there, an instantaneous shock of vaporizing sound. Taken next to Sweetener, thank u, next is the sound of that voice finding space to explore and room to evolve in. Like the tracks laid by her best sisters, the most recent is the best until whatever’s next. This isn’t full-bore deconstruction à la Hannah or SOPHIE, nor is it formal reconstitution of an old alphabet in new letters, like Carly or Charli. thank u, next is a younger cousin to 1989 (explosion of self) and ANTI (redefinition of voice). By encompassing both Taylor’s transformation of memory to grand pop statement and Rihanna’s reinvention of voice in space, thank u, next exists as a text of genuine pop futurability. If you listen to the title track, you will feel 40-feet tall. You will feel capable of dealing with each next day. This feeling should not be discounted.

You will not feel impervious. The corridors are not despairing, but they are haunted. Emily Brontë wrote, in Wuthering Heights, “I’ve dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they’ve gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind.” The point of thank u, next (there isn’t a point, it’s a pop record, dance and love) isn’t to remain unaltered by the ghosts and echoes. The calls to self-love only ring as radical so long as they exist in tandem with the loss before. Ghosts are just fantasies in reverse (“He just comes to visit me/ When I’m dreaming every now and then”) and an ex-anything is just proof of the impact our self and voice has made. Ex- implies its opposite: next.

I hope you find love next. Love, like pop songs, is an improper rendering of a set of untranslateable data; tattoo your mistranslations and imbalances to your body and wave them in the air. Only in something like love, something near next, can we learn to empathize with others, to empathize with ourselves. thank u, next sees our ghosts, feels our echoes, and motions toward a future. Whitney called it “the greatest love of all”; Ari hiccups and hums: “thank you, next.”

Eureka!

Some releases are so incredible we just can’t help but exclaim EUREKA! While many of our picks here defy categorization and explore the constructed boundaries between ‘music’ and ‘noise,’ others complement, continue, or rupture traditions that provide new forms and ways of listening. Not all of our favorites will be listed here, but we think each EUREKA! album is worthy of careful consideration. This section is a work-in-progress, so expect its definition to be in perpetual flux.

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