Poignant and Polished: Eternal Sunshine Proves Grande Deserving of Music Icon Status

Matthew Ennis reviews Ariana Grande’s newly released album for SCENE.

(Image: Matthias Wagner, Unsplash)

Aside from her applauded whistle-tone vocals, if Ariana Grande is an expert in anything it’s the subtle construction and retaking of a public narrative. 

Now, after a widely-publicised divorce and subsequent alleged ‘home-wrecking’ relationship with ‘Wicked’ co-star Ethan Slater, it feels like she’s never had more to address. 

But, rather than brazenly air-out her personal life with a bullet-point list of explanations, Grande floats above the noise and focuses on crafting a carefully considered and elegant album that gives a unique insight into the emotional fallout of these events on her. 

In doing so, Grande recontextualises the narrative surrounding her through art that provides valuable glimpses into her life, rather than what the album could have easily become: a series of record-setting lectures.

If listening to early Taylor Swift albums can feel like reading her diary, Eternal Sunshine is like adding your new crush on Instagram and trying to piece together their life from photos and captions. It’s less explicitly personal, but feels just as vulnerable and all the more engrossing. 

Grande seems to be aware of this dynamic and playfully teases listeners – even the song ‘true story’ is evasive and tongue-in-cheek. 

Back in 2018, the world waited to see how Grande might address the impact of a tragic terrorist attack at one of her concerts in Manchester.

In her subsequent single, instead of a maudlin ballad, we received the exceptional no tears left to cry: a dance-pop anthem about learning to move on after tragedy. Rather than divulging her past traumas, Grande focussed on healing, taking her artistry to new heights, and pioneering her unique ‘self-care pop’ genre. 

With Eternal Sunshine, Grande takes a similar approach. In her most chronological album to date, she positions the start of her narrative not at the traumatic breakdown of her marriage, but from her final decision to leave. 

The following songs chart her ensuing healing process and discovery of a new relationship. Painful details from her previous relationships seep through sparingly as the album becomes a meditation on processing pain and opening up to new possibilities.

In her last album, Positions, Grande discusses never wanting to lose her lover. Now, post-divorce, this album seeks to answer the question of how we recover when the thing we never want to happen to us, happens. 

The album title is inspired by the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), in which Jim Carey undergoes a procedure to medically erase his ex-girlfriend from his mind. In the incandescent title track, Grande ruminates on how, despite moving on with a new lover, she cannot remove the lingering pain of what could’ve been. 

‘Our shadows dance in a parallel plane, just two different endings’, Grande sings in the poignant i wish i hated you, as she processes becoming a stranger to someone she envisioned the rest of her life with. 

Meanwhile, the eerie yet enchanting sound of the album highlight imperfect for you perfectly reflects the lyrical content of finding something beautifully real within a period of chaos and heartbreak. 

The album reaches the same conclusion of its film namesake: the realities of love are complicated and painful, but worth it.

This message is conveyed through a cohesive sound defined by catchy melodies which are simultaneously buoyant and airy while restrained and understated. 

The album is not full of the pop bangers many were expecting, although there are moments; notably the disco-infused bye, and lead single yes, and? (which makes much more sense as a catharsis in the context of the album). Instead, the majority of the album features silky smooth, even sleepy vocals over Y2K-gesturing trap beats.

Grande’s fluency in morphing between pop, hip hop and RnB is on full show here, with a sophisticated and atmospheric tone reflecting her signature aesthetic as a curator and visionary who brings an indescribable ‘vibe’ to everything she touches. Irresistibly easy to listen to, this feels like background music in the best possible way.

This could be boring if it was not delivered by an artist with such magnetic style. It helps that Grande has a once-in-a-generation vocal talent, who could belt the most challenging ballads but seldom feels the need to show off, creating a delightful effortlessness for the album’s vocals. 

This may not be Ariana Grande’s most explicitly personal record – she’s certainly not naming names like some of her previous work – but it does feel like her most intimate and vulnerable to date emotionally. More than anything, Eternal Sunshine is just another example of Grande’s visionary skills as an artist who deserves her legacy as one of the most defining musical talents of our time.

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