thank u, next might have been anchored by big, ubiquitous singles, but part of what made it such an affecting highlight in Ariana Grande’s career was its subtly understated nature. The album’s minimalist, mid-tempo instrumentals gave space for some of the singer’s most starkly confessional lyrics as the songs processed grief and personal trauma with both elegance and vulnerability. In that context, Positions feels less like a detour than a natural step forward for Grande, who here revels in a similar kind of hushed, low-key atmosphere while projecting even more maturity and confidence. But while the singer once again hits a lot of the right notes, the musical component of her new album leaves a lot to be desired, laden with strings that suit Grande’s graceful delivery but fail to capture the thrilling heights of her past work.
Which is somewhat fitting, because the album is less about tracing the highs and lows of the singer’s personal life than trying to crystallize a moment of stability and newfound contentment. Grande wrote the album while settling into a new relationship, and Positions comfortably – perhaps too comfortably – glides from one sultry R&B jam to the next while also providing a glimpse into the anxieties that come with trying to make that romantic attraction last. ‘34+35’ is obviously the most explicit of the bunch (just read that title again), and Grande’s infectious exuberance makes it one of the most fun cuts on the album: “If I put it quite plainly/ Just give me them babies,” she quips. When she sings “no more playing it safe” against slinky production on ‘nasty’, it’s clear she’s not kidding, because she quickly follows it up with “I just want to make time for you/ Swear it’s just right for you/ Like this pussy designed for you.”
Even if Grande is playing it safe on the relatively economical Positions, she does so without stepping away from the more vulnerable side she displayed on her last couple of records. Somewhat surprisingly (then again, maybe not), the record has a lot in common with Charli XCX’s how i’m feeling now, which was released earlier this year, in that it explores romantic intimacy in the COVID-19 era by delving into both the euphoric feelings as well as the insecurities that it brings along. “I just wonder, baby, if you’re gonna stay,” she admits on ‘six thirty’, “Even if, one day, I lose it and go crazy.” On the stand-out ‘safety net’ featuring Ty Dolla $ign, she begins by marvelling at how far the relationship has come in such a short span of time, then confesses, “I’ve never been this scared before/ Feelings I just can’t ignore.” It’s a much more effective duet than the mediocre ‘off the table’ with the Weeknd, which sticks out mostly for not being ‘Love Me Harder’.
Interestingly, the fears that Grande outlines on Positions have less to do with growing out of love than worrying about how her own mental state might affect the health of the relationship. It’s why the line on the title track and lead single isn’t “hopin’ history doesn’t repeat itself” but “hopin’ I don’t repeat history”, and why she proceeds to list out all the ways in which she’s determined to make the relationship work. On ‘love language’, she feels compelled to assure her partner it’s the small things he does that help her calm down (“You can talk your shit all night/ You the medication when I’m feeling anxious”); but as she admits on the final track, ‘pov’, she still isn’t sure how to accept the same kind of validation from others: “I’d love to see me from your point of view,” she harmonizes, implying that she might not be able to yet, but maybe she’s starting to see herself for who she really is.
The album’s mellow, overly polished instrumentals don’t always match up to the complexity of what she’s trying to evoke, but there are moments where Grande’s performance is so potent that it barely even matters. ‘my hair’, perhaps the best song on the album, subverts the listeners’ expectations about what could be just another sex jam (“I want you to touch it softly/ Like the way you do my mind”), before revealing a deeper, more delicate emotional core as she invites her lover to run his hands through her signature ponytail. “This ain’t usually me/ But I might let it down for ya,” she sings. Placed in the middle of the tracklist, it feels less like a point of resolution than part of the process, the way Positions feels more like part of a natural artistic progression than a statement on its own. The album might not be quite as breath-taking as the best that Sweetener and thank u, next had to offer, but in learning to trust her own voice and rely less on big, radio-friendly hooks, Grande suggests she might have something even better in store for the future.