If there’s one good thing to come out of 2020 (other than the obvious one that happened a couple weeks ago), it’s that there’s been a lot of unexpected album releases. Some of these have been albums that were long in production (Run The Jewels’ RTJ4, Fiona Apple’s Fetch The Bolt Cutters) and some of them have been surprisingly great albums that were recorded on a whim during quarantine (Taylor Swift’s Folklore, Fleet Foxes’ Shore). Either way, the surplus of albums from prominent artists in 2020 clearly seems to be born out of the fact that musicians are stuck at home with nothing better to do than record songs as well as a need to communicate with listeners. Now, I’m not sure that the world needed another Ariana Grande album in 2020 after she put out two of the better pop albums of the 2010s in the last two consecutive years, but it’s still another welcome surprise.
On 2018’s Sweetener and 2019’s Thank U, Next, Grande honed a minimalist style of pop music that felt somewhat indebted to Trap, but still had a kind of exuberance due to Grande’s vocal acrobatics and confessional lyrics. While there’s plenty to chew on in these albums in regards to how much they’re reflections of Grande’s messy public/personal life, the fact that they were chocked full of catchy melodies was the most obvious factor in converting pop-skeptics like myself into fans. At the very least, Positions retains a lot of this dependable catchiness with plenty of the same bouncy production touches that marked these previous albums with a few noticeable tweaks.
I think the most noticeable new touch here is a lot of orchestral and string sounds thrown into these songs in somewhat unconventional ways. Whether these are actual string sections or synthesized ones is kind of beside the point, since either way they add a kind of sophistication to this collection of songs that otherwise could’ve been Grande’s typical bangers. Maybe you could say that this sophisti-pop sound could’ve been expanded on a little more, but when it does come to full fruition on the songs on Positions (like most notably album-closer “pov”), it’s quite a thing.
This is also probably the album where Grande’s diva influences — most notably Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston — are at their most apparent. Clearly, Grande’s octive-shattering vocals have been indebted to these artists in the past, but songs like “my hair” and “love language” have a decidedly 90s sound that adds to this album being a surprisingly retro-sounding album for an artist that has, for the most part, built her career on chasing whatever new sounds the kids are into. However, since she doesn’t completely commit to these fresher retro-grooves on this album, Positions does feel a bit like a transitional album, but much like anything remotely good in 2020, it should still make us happy for what we got.