No pop star in history has ever had to launch a comeback like the one Ariana Grande is currently embarking upon. It's not a PR or musical disaster that's kept her out of the limelight the past year, or even a personal health crisis -- it's being at the center of one of the most horrific terrorist attacks of the 21st century -- a tragedy she played no direct part in, but one which will no doubt loom large over the rest of her career regardless. In particular, her first musical release since the Manchester concert bombing that killed 22 and injured more than 59 was guaranteed to be stuck in its shadow, and interpreted in its wake.
"No Tears Left to Cry," released overnight on Friday (Apr. 20) as her return single, doesn't try to run from this. The refrain of "Ain't got no tears left to cry" is applicable to just about any personal misery, but could only really be about one thing given the context. And rather than continue to dwell on the state of things, she does what the great divas have always done when forced to persevere through devastating hardships: She hits the dance floor.
But maybe not quite how you'd expect. "No Tears" is glittery and strobe-lit and soaring in its own way, sure, but it's not "Break Free," Grande's first great disco anthem and one of the most invigoratingly cathartic dance-pop songs of the decade. That song -- also a Max Martin co-production and Savan Kotecha co-write, like "No Tears" -- burst off from its opening synth squalls, and its chorus was an all-time declaration of independence: "This is the part where I say I don't want ya/ I'm stronger than I've been before/ This is the part where I break free/ 'Coz I can't resist it no more." The sense of release on that song was overwhelming, emboldening. It was a triumph.
"No Tears" isn't a triumph; at least, not in the same way. Its intro is slow and sparse -- like Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive," as originally pointed out by Billboardcontributor Richard S. He -- but when the beat drops and the synth hook finally shines through, it sounds angular, off-kilter, not immediately satisfying. The beat isn't a straight 4/4 pulse, but a little more of a shuffle, with a little early-'90s swing to it. The chorus arrives in a major fashion, Ariana's sung-spoken verses giving way to an emotional cry, but the sentiment takes a moment to digest: "Right now, I'm in a state of mind/ I wanna be in, like, all the time/ Ain't got no tears left to cry/ So I'm pickin' it up, I'm pickin' it up, I'm lovin', I'm livin', I'm pickin it up." The feeling is one of relief, not achievement: Grande is merely thrilled to finally be able to stay emotionally composed long enough to begin getting on with her life.
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And that's probably a good thing. The experience of the Manchester bombing was undoubtedly one of unspeakable horror for Grande -- but it was far from hers alone. To release a song following the tragedy where it was all reduced to a dramatic personal challenge to be resoundingly conquered would risk diminishing the suffering of those who don't get the chance to move on from it -- Ariana will survive, certainly, but others didn't and won't.
The mood of the song, then, is exultant, but only casually so: "Vibin'" is repeatedly mentioned. "Comin' out even when it's raining down," the singer states matter-of-factly in the pre-chorus, undaunted but understanding it's still gloomy outside. Nothing is over here; Grande may want to be in this mood "like, all the time," but seems to know that's not too realistic. For the moment, though, the waterworks have run dry, so she's taking the minor victory where she gets it.
"No Tears Left to Cry" doesn't feel like the first-round KO fans might have expected from Ariana's highly anticipated return, but may turn out to be something richer. Like Destiny's Child's "Nuclear," the simmering mid-tempo jam that dropped with the group's 2013 Love Songs set when most fans were hoping for an anthem the trio could play at the Super Bowl, "No Tears" is a grower, not to be fully appreciated on first listen. It might not even be a true comeback single, but rather the song just that makes such an eventual comeback possible -- now that she's addressed the elephant in her career, acknowledged it isn't going away anytime soon, and can once again become
who she really are.