“Sweetener” is an album of resets for Ariana Grande. It’s impossible to understand about the singer’s fourth album without mentioning the career rupture that influenced it: the 2017 bombings at her Manchester concert, a tragedy that Grande has credited with reshaping her “Sweetener” songs. And then, for an artist whose music has always been characterized for its romance, came her most dramatic love story yet, her whirlwind engagement to comedian Pete Davidson. The couple announced their plans to marry in June, after just weeks of dating.
On “Sweetener,” Grande reconciles these two life-altering events with 13 tracks that explore the stages of falling in love, and the stages of loving yourself. Every successive Grande album has been hailed as her “most grown-up yet” – a compliment that can double as condescension, as though her tiny stature and Disney princess-esque soprano makes her music girlish by default.
Yet the growth Grande sings about on “Sweetener” is more existential than the confident sexuality of her previous “adult” album, 2016’s “Dangerous Woman.” Here, she’s in Oprah mode, preaching self-love while revealing her struggles along the way, threading the life-affirming themes of the “Sweetener” lead single “No Tears Left to Cry” throughout the album.
How Grande soundtracks this journey is what makes “Sweetener” the most interesting – and, at times, confounding – release of her career. Max Martin, the Swedish production juggernaut behind the majority of Grande’s biggest hits, takes five tracks on the album, while Pharrell Williams, an equally prolific pop producer whose style is colorfully quirky to Martin’s bloodless perfection, worked on seven. Whether listeners prefer Martin’s or Pharrell’s productions will depend on personal taste, but Martin’s contributions are uniformly strong, unsurprising for his reputation as a hit-making mercenary.