Ever since Bob Dylan released “Blonde on Blonde” in 1966, the trope of returning to your roots has permeated the music industry for decades. At this point, we’ve come to expect it from our crossover pop stars (ever heard someone say they want the old Taylor Swift back?). Who we don’t expect it from would be the reigning princess of pop, so when Ariana Grande dropped “Positions,” an R&B-embellished pop album in the vein of her debut record, “Yours Truly” (2013), it shocked the world to the tune of one million likes on Twitter.
To leave behind commercial, radio-friendly music is a bold move. Unfortunately for Grande, “Positions” comes across as ambitiously unambitious. Rather than feeling like a new, original work, “Positions” is a rehash of her past albums, synthesizing the R&B of her debut, the sexuality of “Dangerous Woman,” and the mature outlook of “Sweetener” and “thank u, next.” The result is a competent yet conservative album that at times lacks personality.
Released Oct. 30, the problems with “Positions” are best exemplified on its lead single and title track. Here, Grande eschews her history of transcendental lead singles (“thank u, next,” “no tears left to cry,” “Dangerous Woman”) in favor of an addicting earworm that feels like it could have been sung by anyone. Granted, the album is advertised as a sex record, and we shouldn’t expect Grande to have to always sing about “serious issues” (whatever that means), but she’s done a lot better with less material before. Where’s the provocativeness of “Side to Side,” the quirky ecstasy of “Sweetener” or the sly wit of “bloodline?”
What’s left behind in Grande’s wake is the hollow shell of what could have been. You’d expect a genre shift to take some chances, but there are precious few risks on the album. “off the table,” Grande’s first collaboration with The Weeknd since 2014’s “Love Me Harder,” is the musical equivalent of Jurassic Park 2: the sequel that figured if it just kept the dinosaurs around, it would still be good. Her track “obvious” might make listeners believe love is destiny, except it comes off as a parody of her ever-so naive interlude “pete davidson” from “Sweetener.”
Grande’s songwriting regression is somewhat offset by bits and spurts of overwhelming charm. “shut up,” which opens the album with an orchestral explosion, has Grande moving past the traumatic events that inspired her past two albums, and the follow-up, “34+35,” has an edgy suggestiveness that would make “Dangerous Woman” proud (add the numbers in the title and see for yourself). Most impressively, though, is career highlight “pov,” which finds Grande wishing she could see herself the same way her lover does. It’s the kind of personal songwriting Grande has honed over her past two albums on tracks like fan-favorites “better off” and “needy,” and her practice has paid off.
Elsewhere, Grande makes up for her subpar lyricism with her four-octave range and a complementing R&B production. Easily her most impressive vocal performance to date, “my hair” is complete with a Mariah Carey-esque verse sung entirely in whistle notes. Right on its heels are “nasty” and “west side,” harmony-laden mid-tempos that succeed thanks to Grande’s knack for vocal production (she does the vocal arrangement for nearly every song on “Positions” herself).
However, the deluge of mid-tempo songs do take their toll. Like a raft in the open ocean, listeners drift across the album with nothing to tug their ear except the occasional whistle note. Relief is slow to arrive — it takes the album ten tracks for the charismatic “love language” to teeter onto the stage. Here, Grande takes chances not seen elsewhere in her discography, tacking on a short interlude on the end reminiscent of fellow pop-star Billie Eilish’s switch-ups in “bad guy” and “my future.”
Unfortunately for Grande, “Positions” is unable to overcome the terms of its own game. Why take on such an ambitious genre shift if you’re not going to meet that level of ambition throughout the album? It almost begs the question of whether “Positions” is shameless money grab — it is Grande’s third album in as many years, after all — although it’s highly unlikely that a multi-millionaire, Grammy-winning artist like Grande would resort to such conspiracy. Instead, she’s probably just doing whatever she wants. And that would make a lot of sense! She’s coming off her career peak of “thank u, next,” and she has more than enough artistic freedom to go back to her roots. If that’s what makes her happy, who can blame her?