Ariana Grande - eternal sunshine album review: no rest for the Wicked

 (PR Handout/Katia Temkin)
(PR Handout/Katia Temkin)

It turns out there ain’t no rest for the Wicked. Midway through shooting a film adaptation of the hit musical, Ariana Grande (who will play bedazzled do-gooder Glinda in the big screen version) suddenly found herself at a loose end after Hollywood strikes put the brakes on proceedings.

Time to take up a new hobby, book a cheeky holiday, or perhaps even stand on some picket lines? Not on Grande’s watch: instead, in true pop star style, she used the surprise downtime to head back into the studio with her frequent collaborator, the Swedish pop producer Max Martin. The pair didn’t set out to make an album, and simply holed up in New York’s Jungle Studios to throw around a few ideas. But almost right away ‒ as Grande has explained to the podcaster Zach Sang ‒ a new record began “pouring out”.

In fairness, Grande probably has quite a bit to get off her chest; while filming Wicked she hit it off with actor Ethan Slater (best known for playing SpongeBob Square Pants on Broadway) and the co-stars both reportedly broke off their respective marriages. Their apparent new relationship quickly became tabloid fodder, with Slater’s ex-wife declaring that Grande wasn’t a “girl’s girl”.

And her seventh album, which borrows its name from the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, loosely alludes to these events. “I’ll play the villain if you need me to,” she offers on True Story, while the Vogue-adjacent ballroom banger Yes, And? is a little more direct. “Your business is yours and mine is mine,” Grande sings, “Why do you care so much whose d**k I ride?”

Along the way, Grande also enlists the clairvoyant Diana Garland to deliver a speech about having an existential crisis in your late 20s (apparently the movements of Saturn are entirely to blame) and also recruits her 98-year-old nan (credited as Nonna) for closer Ordinary Things; an accidentally hilarious song which dreams of loftily romantic scenarios such as… hitting the slopes “in matching snowsuits” (I would rather be sick into my own hands and clap). Not to sound completely militant, we live in a democracy after all, but I firmly believe that family member voice notes should be made illegal on albums; they’re nearly always incredibly dull.

Still, this is a solid record with some immediate standouts; Yes, And? remains excellent, while We Can’t Be Friends (Wait For Your Love) is a worthy addition to a very specific splinter-group within the pop canon: thumping dance bangers about ugly-crying in the corner of the club while the person you’re hopelessly in love with cops off with someone else. Robyn’s Dancing On My Own (“I'm in the corner, watchin' you kiss her, OHHHHHHHH!”) is quite obviously the one to beat, and though Grande gives it her best (the throbbing bassline is remarkably similar) her own lyrics can’t quite touch the sublime heartbreak of the OG.

Fans of Grande’s 2018 album Sweetener will be delighted, though. Flawlessly produced (Ilya Salmanzadeh, DaviDior and Oscar Görres are among the other names credited) eternal sunshine’s snares are crispier than a Gary Lineker Walkers ad; its strutting basslines and atmospheric R&B bring to mind a smoother, more clean-cut take on the classic sound of The Velvet Rope. Not bad, as a cohesive vision for a record Grande says she started making by accident.

Republic Records