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Review: ‘eternal sunshine’ is introspective but fails to take risks

Courtesy Republic Records

By Ashley Wang     3/19/24 10:24pm

Rating: ★★★½

Top Track: “the boy is mine”

To say that Ariana Grande has had a tumultuous four years since the release of her last album, “positions,” would be an understatement. 

Recently, Grande has been making headlines nonstop. She’s had a divorce from a two-year marriage, a starring role in the Hollywood adaptation of “Wicked” and a new relationship that’s been met with allegations of homewrecking. On “eternal sunshine,” Grande gathers all the messy, still-fragile emotions stirring in her mind and holds them up to the light.

The album’s “intro (end of the world)” is a false start; though sincere, it feels like a watered-down version of “imagine” from her 2019 project “thank u, next.” Where the album truly begins is on its second track, “bye,” as Grande’s theatrical roots shine through. The song’s bright piano and orchestral hits amplify its message of setting oneself free from a relationship that just isn’t working anymore.

“don’t wanna break up again” is melodically unimpressive but provides a nuanced portrayal of a relationship that’s falling apart. On this track, Grande oscillates between wanting to leave and wanting to stay, between blaming herself and recognizing that the other person failed to put in the effort she deserved. 

The album’s titular track, “eternal sunshine,” marks a return to Grande’s signature style of R&B-pop inflected with the trap beats that were all over 2020’s “positions.” The lyrics reference the 2004 film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and its focus on yearning for someone who’s caused deep heartbreak. Ironically, the song lacks memorability despite its status as the album’s thematic centerpiece, but its sound is fittingly dreamy and remorseful. 

“supernatural” is Grande’s ode to a new love, enveloped in warm ’80s synths. Even though her enunciation in the chorus leaves something to be desired, the bubbly, hopeful sound of “supernatural” makes it well-suited for driving top down at night. This is also the case for “we can’t be friends (wait for your love)” in the album’s latter half, which somewhat succeeds in evoking Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend” and is at its most moving when performed live.

In “true story,” Grande paints herself as an ironic villain, mocking the media’s portrayals of her. The production of “true story,” though, far exceeds anything interesting Grande might have to say about celebrity gossip. The beat is Timbaland-esque, simultaneously sleek and bouncy; it sounds like a seamless mashup of Aaliyah and Ginuwine.

Grande finally finds her footing in “the boy is mine.” While the classic R&B duet between Brandy and Monica it takes its name from is silky smooth and undeniably ’90s, Grande’s “the boy is mine” is bold from the outset and a likely candidate for the next song to soundtrack a million TikTok edits. The track’s hypnotizing pre-chorus builds to a sultry, percussive hook, which ends with Grande’s most addictive use of vocal chops since 2016’s “Let me Love You.” 

The first single from the album, “yes, and?,” is far too lyrically weak for a comeback song but is saved by its references to Madonna’s “Vogue.” Aside from the release of a version with Mariah Carey that many joked sounds more like a competition than a collaboration, “yes, and?” is a glossy, catchy enough addition to Grande’s work. 

In its final stretch, the album has an undeniable warmth. However, it stumbles in its attempts to slow down and evoke the earnestness of earlier Grande songs, like 2020’s “pov.” “i wish i hated you” suffers from predictable lyrics, while “imperfect for you” sweetly waltzes listeners into a gimmicky chorus. The effect of these missteps is a sense of approaching vulnerability without actually achieving it. As an album closer, “ordinary things” is unconvincing in its claims of entering an idyllic new romance.

While still an enjoyable listen, “eternal sunshine” offers tropes we’ve already heard Grande execute with greater precision on her past records, whether it’s breathy vocals in R&B-pop soundscapes or ultra-sentimental lyrics. “eternal sunshine” certainly has its highlights — but for now, it might be best for fans to revisit Grande’s older discography.

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