Wednesday, May 8, 2019

album review: 'hurts 2b human' by p!nk

Did anyone care this came out, besides me?

I mean, I'm a bigger P!nk fan than most, and I could make the argument I nearly missed it, just one more project caught up in a tidal wave of releases in which I'm still trying to catch up, and it seems like everyone else already moved on to the new Vampire Weekend! But here's the thing: P!nk moved a lot of units because she does have a diehard fanbase and is one of the few pop acts of her era still making... quality? 

And I frame that as a question because the 2010s have not been kind to one of my favourite mainstream pop acts of this decade, and even if I'm inclined to be more forgiving than most, if we compare what's she's released since The Truth About Love to what came off of Missunderztood or I'm Not Dead or even Funhouse, it's not really in the same ballpark. Now a big part of this is not P!nk's fault - pop devolving into pale trap imitations instead of the aggressive pop rock where her natural timbre worked, it's something that has wreaked havoc on so many pop acts. But I think part of this comes from P!nk just not being as provocative as she used to be - yes, years in the industry will do that to you and her diet riot grrl approach to gender politics in her music was never that transgressive if you're closer to the indie scene, but she was one of the few mainstream acts who got political and in your face about it in the mid-2000s - that's why she stood out. Strip away that muscle and intensity and the songs get a lot more bland and forgettable - a great voice could only redeem so much.

Now granted, I had no idea where Hurts 2B Human was going, mostly because 'Walk Me Home' sounded exactly like the sort of bombastic but kind of hollow P!nk song we've gotten this decade... but also like the material fun. was putting out at the beginning of the decade, more rooted in indie rock tropes that went nowhere and probably deserved a longer shelf life! Now that made sense - one of the cowriters was Nate Ruess - but when I saw the newest list of cowriters that spread across Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons, Khalid, Teddy Geiger, Julia Michaels, Ryan Tedder, Sia, Beck, and Chris Stapleton, it gave me no clue where she would take this. But even if it's just me and the diehard fans who care about this, I still do - so what did we get from Hurts 2B Human?

So I'll be blunt: the reason this review is late is because for as much as P!nk isn't leaving me much to say, I really wanted to gauge to see if there's an audience for the quality this album has... and given this is topping the album charts, I figured I might as well spotlight the few bright moments we did get here while acknowledging that P!nk is rapidly approaching territory in pop that's just not interesting or engaging. And yet what's telling at this point is that even the quality we do get is slotting into the sounds and vibes of other acts, with the good songs coming from P!nk's natural talent - not, you know, any significant experimentation or a desire to make a dynamic, energetic pop album.

And let me make this abundantly clear: as a singer and performer, while she's eased back on visceral rock power - which I still hold as her biggest weakness in the past ten years - P!nk is a phenomenal singer. She's got the charisma and vocal control to command a mix as a superstar, and what I've always appreciated is how much she'll throw herself into her work with raw intensity, but with enough subtlety to make genuine tear-jerkers. I still hold her as one of the most dynamic and colourful pop talents still working on vocals alone - so when this album decides to place her beneath layers of autotune on the second song '(Hey Why) Miss You Sometime', I get exasperated fast. But really, it's indicative of the sort of inconsistent production that plagues this album, especially in the vocals: I've been ranting about this for what seems like years now, but at some point a majority of mainstream pop producers forgot how to or just stopped trying to produce for singers with big pipes, and it's an issue that's endemic across the album, from either the peaking in the mix on 'Hustle' to the outright messy pickup on the unfortunately monochromatic 'We Could Have It All'. It almost explains why the album is so keen to double down on spare ballads because piling up the reverb and isolating the vocal line is one of the few things they know how to do, like on 'My Attic' - but even then, some of the thinner timbres that would normally get smoothed out on a song like 'Love Me Anyway' cut through, or you'll still get clumsy peaks on songs like 'Circle Game' that with smoother production should be inexcusable!

But this only skirts around the bigger problem, and one that worried me from the lead-off singles: if you were looking for a distinctive 'P!nk' identity to the composition or production style or even to the writing of these songs, it just does not come through, and it frequently becomes blatant who is behind these songs. I'm not going to complain that Nate Ruess is cowriting for P!nk on 'Walk Me Home', it's one of the more competently produced songs here... but let's not mince words, that's a fun. song with different paint. With the overlayered vocals and sloppy attempt at groove 'Hustle' sounds like an EVOLVE-era Imagine Dragons cut, 'Courage' sounds like any other Sia song produced by Greg Kurstin, and both '90 Days' and 'Can We Pretend' are more like tracks you'd otherwise get from Wrabel or Cash Cash than P!nk herself - which in the case of Cash Cash is a bargain-Kygo and with Wrabel some considerable interpolations from Imogen Heap and Tracy Chapman. Hell, even the title track wouldn't be out of place on the last Khalid album and sure enough he's here too, and while I'm not against these sorts of collaborations in principle, if you go back to the albums P!nk made in the 2000s she had a tone and timbre that was mostly unique to her and maybe two or three other producers. But with so many more hands in the process, the songs feel overmanaged and slapdash - especially the sole callback to P!nk's older sound with 'We Could Have It All' which sounds like an overmixed mess - and the albums can't maintain a consistent instrumental tone beyond defaulting to heavy, increasingly tedious ballads. And when you're eight albums into your career and should have the creative clout to make whatever the hell you want, when I see this many hands in the pie I question why P!nk even wanted to convey with this project beyond filling out a label balance sheet. And again, that's not an indictment of the individual songs: the singles are solid and well-framed, '90 Days' has too much autotune but the hook has a good pedigree, I like the delirious bounce behind 'Can We Pretend', and a few of the ballads do connect... but without the attitude and intensity that might have started from her handlers but that P!nk made her own, I can't see many of these songs lasting.

So is it the lyrics that would put this over the top? Well, this is where we encounter a frustrating point for P!nk as a pop artist who has been active and a credible songwriter for as long as she has: even if you have a distinctive writing style as she does in blending the crass with real vulnerability, by the time you're eight albums in over the course of twenty years if you haven't embraced nuance or greater complexity, your material is going to start to sound the same. Now to P!nk's credit there hasn't been a marked drop-off in lyrical quality in between projects and she's not one to chase blatant trap trends, but it's not like we're seeing a big advancement in quality either, and there are some questionable choices here. Even despite the ugly production, I kind of appreciated how P!nk dropped all the brand names across '(Hey Why) Miss You Sometime' to highlight how disposable this hookup really is... or she got a few paycheques for the shoutouts, which sadly might be more likely. But where Beautiful Trauma is more centered on self-destructive relationships, Hurts 2B Human is trying to tear deeper into P!nk's insecurities and frustrations with herself... and I'm not saying this is bad territory for her, but I'm not quite sure it reflects the full dimensionality and range of emotion that P!nk's shown before. Yes, for the first time a song from Julia Michaels works in its excavation of childhood pain on 'My Attic', and I like how 'Happy' is so blunt in its questions whether her self-doubt and walls have prevented her from being happy, but by the time we head into the final third and are looking for some sort of growth or stability or a sense that there's been some form of personal revelation, we get a cut like 'Circle Game' where she is fully aware of how she has to be strong for her own daughter but is collapsing inwards all the more towards a childlike place, and the acoustic ballad to end the album leaves me feeling that the platitudes about living your truth aren't enough to pull out of that place. And while songs like '90 Days' with its decomposing relationship, or the desperate willful denial of 'Can We Pretend' have some sparkle, the vulnerability and angst without arc or deeper complexity is underwhelming - if it's supposed to lend her greater strength or clarity, it's just not coming through.

And thus as a whole... look, I'm still a P!nk fan, I think she's a tremendous presence behind the microphone and has better instincts than most when it comes to songwriting and what can work for her... but I said when I reviewed Beautiful Trauma that she ceded ground to her handlers in crafting her sound and narrative and with Hurts 2B Human that's all the more true, especially if the project is so heavy on angst and introspection it neglects the flair and punch she's had before. Granted, it could match her current experiences and this project might serve as therapy, but you'd think then her sound and production would be the most her own, instead of the least. And as such... eh, 6/10, recommended for the fans and the silent majority crowd who'll get this anyway, but outside of singles and a few moments, you're not missing much with this.

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