Wednesday, October 18, 2017

album review: 'beautiful trauma' by p!nk

I remember the era when I used to be excited for a P!nk record.

And to explain why that is, some context is essential, because P!nk tends to get elbowed out of the pop conversation a lot more than she should, despite accruing the sort of hits and critical acclaim that have eluded so many of her contemporaries. She might have started in the prefabricated pop starlet scene on her first record, but by the time she dropped Misundaztood in 2001, that image had gone up in flames, mostly through an embrace of much rougher tones that fit her voice and cowriting credits from Linda Perry. And from there we can see the frustrated back-and-forth of P!nk's pop career - an industry desperate to capitalize on her charisma and firepower even as P!nk wanted to write songs that got more thoughtful or personal or raw, from the messy recording of Try This that still led to the titanic deep cut earworm 'Humble Neighborhoods' to the incredible chart run with I'm Not Dead and Funhouse that saw her rack up hit after hit along with smuggling songs like 'Dear Mr. President' into the pop conversation. No, it wasn't really punk, but P!nk seemed at least willing to run that gauntlet.

And then something happened. There seemed to be signs as early as 2010, but in 2012 we got The Truth About Love that seemed more sanitized and pop than ever - and yeah, it fit the overmixed sound of the time, pop rock had died a slow death by then, but it didn't fit her straining vocals and even if I don't dislike the album as much as I did five years ago, it was a painful low point for her, with Greg Kurstin and Jeff Bhasker trying to engineer a tone that used to come naturally and lyrics that could feel borderline self-parody in their party girl veneer that Kesha at least embraced with self-awareness - not even the Max Martin contributions were salvageable. And then P!nk left the mainstream entirely to work with City In Color on you + me and at that point I had just assumed she had left pop behind. But then came 'Just Like Fire', which felt like a pale shadow of everything P!nk had done before and wound up on my list of the Worst Hit Songs of 2016, and while 'What About Us' did seem like an improvement, I had no idea if Beautiful Trauma would bring any of the spark that I loved about P!nk back. The producers and collaborating list did seem a bit more promising - although like last time I was a little nervous about that Eminem collaboration - but hey, P!nk's still a phenomenal singer, so what did we get?'s the thing: if P!nk had released this record four years ago as a quick follow-up to blunt the impact of The Truth About Love, I'd probably be a lot more forgiving to it, because it is a fine enough record that actually sounds a lot more like it would belong in that time period in modern pop. But the unfortunate fact is that the elements cribbed from 2017 can't help but make this feel like a pale shadow of what a P!nk record could be - or hell, even what it has been in the past.

Granted, it's not entirely surprising - expecting that P!nk is going to bring the same firepower she did fifteen years ago might be too much to ask, even though ironically she seems much more comfortable with cursing than she did in the early 2000s, and it helps that her vocals are as strong as full as ever, perhaps not as raspy but still carrying the body and fullness of tone that so many of her modern pop contemporaries lack. And to the producers' credit for the most part they do as much as they can to get out of P!nk's way when she's belting or not feel the need to slather on autotune or pitch shifting when it's not needed. Hell, the one producer where I'd say the vocal production is in any way an issue is - surprise - Greg Kurstin, because there's no excuse for her tone to be topping out on 'But We Lost It' - it's a piano ballad, there aren't other layers you're working with, this shouldn't be an issue! But I think an issue I would have with P!nk is that she isn't quite bringing the same sense of caustic humor or bite that previous records had - yes, I know this is a lot less rock-focused and I know songs like 'Revenge' with Eminem are kind of stupid - more on this in a bit - but this is an album that could afford to be having a little more fun.

And that sense definitely carries over to the production - and no, I'm not going to say this is better than her heyday in the 2000s, but it is a step above The Truth About Love. The melodic tones are firmly anchored in piano or real guitars and are rarely overshadowed by percussion, and there's a refreshing lack of gimmickry that can make P!nk songs feel cluttered or overdone. Hell, with the blockier beat against the rougher strumming on 'Whatever You Want', it might as well sound like a cut that P!nk could have released fifteen years ago. But that might be part of the problem: outside of some stately piano ballads with very tasteful strings, or songs that rely on a very comfortable acoustic-driven tone and sound, a lot of these tracks feel desaturated and dry, lacking spark or sizzle or greater texture that feels unique or fresh. 'What About Us' might be the most blatant example with its misty bounce, but at least it's trying to emphasize a certain loneliness, whereas 'Where We Go' might as well be a straight-up ripoff of Kesha's 'Last Goodbye' and 'I Am Here' sounds like a b-side from Of Monsters And Men. Now granted, in the latter case that's not a bad choice - P!nk's got the pipes to handle it and it's one of the few moments the record really comes alive for me, along with the fuzzy hollow groove of 'Secrets' and the muted but well-produced piano-driven soul of 'Better Life' - but considering the record ends with two piano ballads in a row, you find yourself wishing that P!nk's production would at least bring a little edge or raw intensity, especially when you can tell she's genuinely trying.

But here's the question: is P!nk really bringing the goods here? Well, then we have to get to the content, and if you're familiar with the string of twisted love-hate scenes that P!nk usually creates, you'll know what to expect... almost to the point where it becomes distressingly easy to point to tracks she has made previously that touch on similar points better. Now to her credit her own framing of these songs has changed: on tracks like 'Whatever You Want' or 'Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken', it's very believable when she says she'll be just fine if she leaves, but she's making a choice to put in the effort and try in a way where a less mature writer would just cut and run, which then anchors the lingering heartbreak of faded love on songs like 'But We Lost It' or watching the relationship collapse in slow motion like on 'Where We Go' and 'Better Life' when the effort just falls short. And she's conscious enough of the framing to keep it balanced and fair to both her and her partner, with the best possible example being 'Revenge', where she and Eminem play partners cheating on each other in a relationship, neither are reliable narrators, and the song hits just the right point of over-the-top sour melodrama to hit sardonic humor, at least for me. But on the flip side, you can also tell that P!nk might surrender a bit too much editorial control to her cowriters as points, which can definitely lead to mixed results. Sure, I find P!nk far more effective at conveying the raw vulnerability of Tobias Jesso Jr. than he has ever been, and she's a natural fit for the sort of precise unstable detail balanced with elegance that comes from Jack Antonoff, but... okay, I need to make this abundantly clear, for as much as Julia Michaels was thrilled to be writing for P!nk, her retreats to immaturity and weak self-flagellation not only feel derivative of better P!nk songs on 'Barbies', but hits a pretty deep low with 'For Now', on top of a vocal line that not even P!nk can make tolerable.

But as a whole... honestly, I'm a little stunned I managed to pull together as much material as I did about this record, considering I think it's only pretty good at best. You can make the argument that it's tasteful and a little more refined and mature, but if you're going in that direction by blunting the raw firepower that used to resonate so powerfully in your production and delivery, I can't say it's a choice that'll help a pop record like this stand out. At least P!nk feels back in something resembling a comfort zone, which means I'm giving this a solid 6/10, but really only recommended if you're a fan, and even then she's made songs that cut more deeply. Still, if this was the reintroduction we needed to eventually get the rock side back... hell, I'll take what I can get.

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