Robert Christgau on Ariana Grande's Garden of Sonic Delights
The Dean of American Rock Critics reviews Grande's 'Sweetener' and 'thank u, next,' Robyn's 'Honey,' and albums from Diana Gordon and Amber Mark.
The self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics," Robert Christgau was one of the pioneers of music criticism as we know it—the music editor of the Village Voice from 1974 to 1985 and its chief music critic for several decades after that. At the Voice he created both the annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll and his monthly Consumer Guides. Christgau was one of the first critics to write about hip-hop and the only one to review Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water with one word: "Melodic." He taught at New York University between 1990 and 2016, and has published six books, including his 2015 memoir Going Into the City . A seventh, Is It Still Good to Ya?: Fifty Years of Rock Criticism 1967-2017 , is now available from Duke University Press. Every Friday we run Expert Witness, the weekly version of the Consumer Guide he launched in 2010. To find out more, read his welcome post; for almost five decades of critical reviews, check out his regularly updated website.
Ariana Grande: Sweetener (Republic) Since my secondhand teenpop fandom dried up well before my daughter's enthusiasms dwindled down to One Direction, I ignored Grande until a mixed phalanx of market analysts and poptimist diehards declared this 2018 album pure pop for track-and-hook people. This consensus motivated me to replicate saturation airplay my way—shelling out for the CD and sticking it in the changer until I was ready to cry uncle. A similar ploy got me nowhere with One Direction, their albums so bland I quickly forgot they existed. But Grande is pleasant in such a physically uncommon and technically astute way. Her pure, precise soprano is warm without burr or melisma, its mellow sweetness never saccharine or showy as it strolls through a front-loaded garden of sonic delights where Nicki Minaj outgrowls Missy Elliott and Pharrell Williams's inventions are more subtle yet also more thrilling than Max Martin's. And as she shares self-healing advisories like "No Tears Left to Cry," "Get Well Soon," and especially "Breathin" with all the fans who lived through her terrorized 2017 Manchester concert, you never doubt that the details of the healing are sharpened by own earned traumas. A MINUS
Amber Mark: Conexao EP (Virgin EMI) Uber-bohemian r&b crooner gets down to structure on four legible songs-not-tracks that outline a love affair whose tether has been fraying for far too long: eros in bloom, then sex isn't everything, then I love you anyway, then prove you're worth the work. Only "Love Is Stronger Than Pride" feels less than fully heartfelt—which makes me suspect that "All the Work" is likely to set one more clueless romeo back on his heels. A MINUS
Diana Gordon: Pure (self-released) Five proofs of a Beyoncé cowriter's hard-won, unembittered self-reliance—too modest to be "inspirational," and stronger for it ("Wolverine," "Too Young") ***
Ariana Grande: Thank U, Next (Republic) Maturing from multitracked studio trickeration to straight love songs—love songs an old grouch might complain are all too superstar-specific. ("Thank U, Next," "Ghostin") ***
Robyn: Honey (Konichiwa/Interscope) How I wish she was the pop sparkplug, club buddy, big sister, and strong lover of the glorious old Body Talk trilogy, but either she doesn't have the hooks anymore or she thinks she's beyond them. ("Missingu," "Between the Lines") ***