During the spring of 2019, in the interval between two titanic releases, Ariana Grande posted her brain on Instagram. The image was from a scan, and it showed regions of her mind lit up from the effects of PTSD, the disorder revealed in clear, screenshot-able form. “That’s why her hair’s so big,” she joked, referencing a line from Mean Girls, “it’s full of trauma.” The grace with which Grande has navigated horrors—the ability to name their impact and steer towards healing, to make a top-charting song about a panic attack—has become fundamental to her music. Sweetener dazzled because its joy was defiant. thank u, next caromed through phases of glee and grief, moving from pink Champagne bravado into stark confessions. Positions, her third album in two years, searches for peace. It traces the quiet work of piecing yourself together, the terror of re-learning how to trust. “All them demons help me see shit differently,” she sings 20 seconds into the album, “so don’t be sad for me.” That statement clears the way for some of the record’s goofier moments; it also functions as a kind of thesis.
The giddiness that propels the album also heightens its tension. She’s both in love and scared of it, and the frenzy of new romance animates the contrast. “Just give me them babies!” she yelps on “34+35,” a track constructed around an almost-subtle joke until the final seconds. (“That means I’m trying to 69 with you,” she hums. “No shit.”) A slew of slinky sex jams—the title track, “my hair,” “nasty”—drape her harmonies over hazy synths. On “just like magic,” she ticks off her calendar: meetings, meditations, “read a fucking book,” ardent manifesting. The song is both winking and not, a sequel to sweetener’s “successful” that shimmers from behind volleys of drums. But then she sings about writing “love letters to heaven,” and the instruments dissolve. The song quiets for a moment, and the gravity of what she’s said sinks in.
Grief sneaks up on you, and on Positions, it’s woven into Grande’s attempt to process love. Musically and spiritually, much of the album builds off of “ghostin,” a delicate, pulsing track from thank u, next about navigating a lost love with a new partner. “Though I wish he were here instead/Don’t want that living in your head,” she sang then, before diving into the mantra-like refrain: “We’ll get through this, we’ll get past this.” On the new record, the hopeful conclusion is less immediate. You hear her wrestling for control, asking instead of answering. The stunning Ty Dolla $ign-assisted “safety net” interrogates and negotiates with fear: “Don’t know if I should fight or fly,” she sings, the physiological language set over constant, murky sighs. “Will I ever love the same way again?” she cries on “off the table,” a syrupy ballad with The Weeknd. “Do I just sit this one out and wait for the next life?” The song blooms over wisps of strings and heavy, heady drums, like an artifact from his Trilogy mixtapes. “I’ll wait for you,” he sings, “Even though it feels like I’ll always be number two to someone you can’t hold anymore.” On “six thirty,” Grande’s silky harmonies glide in over and over to ask, “Are you down? What’s up?”, but the lyrics framing it reveal the weight of the question. “I know this shit kinda heavy,” she murmurs, wondering if her lover’s equipped to support her, and if she’s even ready to ask.
Many of these songs stem from hesitancy, from rejecting risks or articulating their costs, and their production is largely sleek and muted. The flourishes live in the transitions between tracks—the Broadway-eque orchestral burst at the end of “shut up,” the burbling synths that close “obvious.” Grande’s voice remains nestled in a breathy sway, occasionally stretching into a rap-adjacent cadence. If these songs lack the sticking power of her stadium power ballads, there’s still dimension to their glazed reveries. (“west side” in particular is an understated, simmering highlight.) In any other year, “motive” might have been written as an internet-breaking banger (Murda Beatz! Doja Cat!), but here it’s twinkling and hushed. Positions suffers a bit from its sanitized precision, the way slippery harmonies wind around trap-drum exoskeletons; you wonder what the title track would sound like if London on da Track’s presence were actually felt, instead of a fun fact for the credits.
But maybe this isn’t the place for that. Positions doesn’t broaden Grande’s sound the way her past few albums have, and it isn’t buoyed by a heroic anthem, like “no tears left to cry,” or guided by a specific mission, like how “thank u, next” honored her relationship history. The record resonates partly because it doesn’t weld grand statements out of living with trauma; it narrows in on the wobbly path of pleading with yourself, the begging and bargaining of healing. “I want to trust me the way that you trust me,” Grande belts on “pov,” her voice throbbing and raw. This is the root of every love song on Positions, the ache at the album’s core. It’s the urge to take tangible pain and make something from it, to feel safe—again, at last—in your own head.
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