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Ariana Grande’s ‘Sweetener’ is her most interesting, and confounding, album yet

Ariana Grande accepts an award at the 2018 MTV Video Music Awards in New York. | Getty Images

It’s impossible to understand “Sweetener,” Ariana Grande’s fourth and latest album, without mentioning the career rupture that influenced it: the 2017 bombings at her Manchester concert.

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 marriage plans in June after just weeks of dating.

On “Sweetener,” Grande plays off of these two life-altering events with 13 tracks that explore the stages of falling in love — and of loving yourself.

Every Grande album has been hailed as her “most grown-up yet” — a compliment that can double as condescension.

Yet the growth Grande sings about on “Sweetener” is more existential than the confident sexuality of her previous “adult” album, 2016’s “Dangerous Woman.” She’s preaching self-love while revealing her struggles, threading the life-affirming themes of 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 most of Grande’s big hits, takes five tracks on the album, and Pharrell Williams, an equally prolific pop producer whose style is colorfully quirky, worked on seven.

Martin’s contributions are uniformly strong. Responsible for the singles “No Tears” and “God is a Woman,” Martin also is behind the album’s most obvious contender for its next single, “Breathing,” which achieves the same booming pop euphoria as Grande and Martin’s “Dangerous Woman” hit “Into You.”

If Martin’s tracks have a downside, it’s that his songs can bleed together —“Everytime” is reminiscent of his work on Taylor Swift’s “Reputation,” and the ’80s flourishes in “Breathing” invoke his work with Carly Rae Jepsen, two influences that aren’t necessarily a bad thing.

But, oy, those Pharrell tracks. How listeners feel about the sure-to-be-divisive songs he wrote and/or produced will largely depend on how they feel about “The Light is Coming,” Grande’s Pharrell-backed single with Nicki Minaj. It thrilled some fans as a kooky new direction and alienated others put off by its cartoonish beat and inexplicable sampled vocals, sourced from a 2009 CNN clip of a man yelling at Sen. Arlen Specter.

Pharrell’s seven “Sweetener” tracks don’t get any weirder than “The Light is Coming,” though they largely share the song’s maddeningly “extra” qualities. Pharrell, also a a fashion designer, could stand to apply Coco Chanel’s famous words of sartorial wisdom —“Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off” — to his productions, which often pile on adlibs, programmed beats and vocals-over-vocals to melodies that don’t quite make sense in the first place, veering left when you expect them to turn right.

That isn’t to say all of his and Grande’s tracks are duds. Highlights include the pair of drunk-in-love tracks “Blazed” and “R.E.M.,” as well as Grande’s Missy Elliott collaboration “Borderline,” its only fault being that the rapper’s feature isn’t twice as long.

The Pharrell-produced closing track “Get Well Soon” is a soulful soundalike to Grande’s breakup ballad “Honeymoon Avenue,” the first song on her 2013 debut “Yours Truly,” sweetly bringing the pop star full circle with a track that celebrates enduring love.

More flashes of the throwback R&B that characterized Grande’s earlier releases come courtesy of her longtime producer Tommy Brown, who partners with Grande on “Better Off,” on which she gets introspective about a boy with a hot body but only half a heart.

Brown also backs “Pete Davidson, a minute-long interlude about her fiancé — one of the many tracks that imagine Davidson as a dream incarnate as she sings, “I thought you into my life / Whoa, look at my mind.”

The best of Brown and Grande’s tracks is easily “Goodnight and Go,” a brilliant semi-cover of Imogen Heap’s 2005 track of the same name. Best known for her vocoder-filtered a cappella masterpiece “Hide and Seek,” Heap is a professed idol of Grande’s. And Grande keeps much of Heap’s “Goodnight and Go” songwriting intact, adding electronic flourishes to turn the original track’s glitchy pop into the radio anthem the song always deserved to be.

With its self-assured songwriting and a handful of promising potential singles, Grande’s “Sweetener” succeeds as a comeback narrative, giving the performer her happy ending after the toughest year of her career.

The album’s hit-or-miss track list is a further sign of growth for Grande, demonstrating she’s willing to take risks with her music. That the album’s odder tracks don’t quite land, though, is a sign that Grande is still refining her instincts as an artist.

A voice as timeless as hers deserves songwriting and production to match.

Ariana Grande performs during the 2018 MTV Video Music Awards on Monday. | Getty Images
Ariana Grande performs during the 2018 MTV Video Music Awards on Monday. | Getty Images