Indulgence and cliché were never attributes we've used to describe peak-era Pink, but on this languid, ballad-heavy effort, they fit perfectly.
"'There are moments where I look at [husband Carey Hart] and he is the most thoughtful, logical, constant ... he's like a rock. He's a good man. He's a good dad. He's just the kind of dad I thought he'd be and then some. And then I'll look at him and go: I've never liked you. There's nothing I like about you. We have nothing in common. I don't like any of the shit you like. I don't ever wanna see you again. Then two weeks later I'm like, things are going so good, you guys. Then you'll go through times when you haven't had sex in a year. Is this bed death? Is this the end of it? Do I want him? Does he want me?' She takes a breath. 'Monogamy is work! But you do the work and it's good again.'" --Pink, The Guardian (2017-10-13)
Even now, over 15 years after claiming her artistic independence on a major label scale with Missundaztood, will Alecia Moore be remembered as more of an album artist or a singles artist? Moreover, does it even matter?
Since rejecting the prepackaged radio diva notions that launched her into fame in the year 2000, Pink has managed to merge pathos with pop songs in remarkable fashion, rejecting dudes in creative ways ("U + Ur Hand"), finding herself following a breakup ("So What"), uniting freaks together ("Raise Your Glass"), and forcing herself to power through the rough spots of relationship (the daring "Try"). All of these songs are texturally different from each other, and even with Missundaztood being generally acknowledged as her most consistent album, her singles were sometimes so focused and effective that she managed to score hits even when off the traditional artist promotional cycle. Heck, her two "new" songs off her Greatest Hits compilation became greatest hits in their own right, hitting #1 and #2 on the pop charts, proving that in speaking her mind, baring her soul, and setting a beat to all of it, Pink may well go down as one of the most consistent hitmakers since the dawn of the new millennium.
So why does Beautiful Trauma, her ballad-heavy and morose seventh album, feel so indulgent and creatively dried out?
Ditching electric guitars and heavy synths almost entirely for piano and acoustic-based numbers, Beautiful Trauma feels like a breakup record, even with little mention of any such issues within her marriage to the press (her and Hart gave birth to their second child in late 2016). After really stretching out her genre chops in 2012's The Truth About Love, Beautiful Trauma almost feels like a reset, as if Pink wants to back to the bare-bones sounds she achieved with her Dallas Green side-project You+Me from 2014. She brings in all her usual collaborators -- Greg Kurstin (Adele, The Bird & The Bee), Max Martin and Shellback (Taylor Swift, Katy Perry), busbee ("Try", Lady Antebellum) -- along with some new faces (Tobias Jesso Jr., Jack Antonoff), but these individual collaborations all blend together, lost in an album with surprisingly little color or drive behind it.
The title track opens on a hell of a couplet ("We were on fire / I slashed your tires"), but rides a languid, bland piano groove with the usual Antonoff synth pads and orchestrations buttressing the arrangements. It's passable fare, but outside of the goofy Eminem collab "Revenge", it feels as if the entire album is indebted to the melodrama that swallowed her two biggest hits prior to this disc's release: the neo-Broadway ballad "Just Give Me a Reason" and the acoustic
Alice Through the Looking Glass soundtrack cut "Just Like Fire". MOR pop numbers of this ilk dot the entire tracklist, sometimes taking the form of odd little rock tunes like "Whatever You Want" (which weirdly cops more than a few chord changes from Radiohead's "High & Dry") and the jaunty mid-tempo Kurstin collab "Where We Go", which itself feels like a knock of an earlier 2017 guitar-dance number, "It Ain't Me" by Kygo and Selena Gomez. Obviously, working in the realm of the Top 40 hitmaker means sometimes lapping existing trends and tropes, but for an artist of Pink's distinct style and stature, such trend-chasing feels oddly out of place for her entire aesthetic.
Much of Beautiful Trauma follows the same formula: songs start out sparse and minimal, pile on instruments for a dramatic chorus, and then proceed to gently fade out. The Julia Michaels-assisted "Barbies" does this with a fingerpicked acoustic opening, "But We Lost It" does the same with a grand piano in its place, and "Wild Hearst Can't Be Broken" amps up the orchestration to positively gaudy proportions, embellishing some of the most tired lines she's ever written:
This is my rally cryI know it's hard, we have to try
This is a battle I must win
To want my share is not a sin
While there's never anything wrong with a ballad-oriented album, such releases tend to have a mark of indulgence in them, tripping over the same themes more than a few times in the course of just a few songs, and Beautiful Trauma falls right into this trap, stacking sad serenades so closely together that they blur, leaving them not only a bit forgettable but also blunting any emotional impact they're going for. Closing number "You Get My Love", her sparse piano-and-vocal turn, is clearly aiming for Carole King territory and manages to get close to that throwback singer-songwriter vibe, but the bland lyrics are only saved by Pink's truly marvelous vocal runs during the chorus, forcing the song into actual emotional shapes instead of simply riding on rote sentimentality like so many other tracks here.
Although Beautiful Trauma does stick to an overarching emotional theme more than most of her excellent recent albums, Trauma is nonetheless an odd, morose beast that at times plays into Pink's worst instincts (i.e. leaning towards cliché when she never really had problem avoiding it before). Thankfully there are times where she's still able to latch on that edgy voice that helped make her one of the most authentic voices we hear on the radio. "Better Life", a breezy, low-key little Antonoff production, uses stacked vocals and a plaintive keyboard with gospel tones to talk about how the life with her partner may not be what either envisioned, mixing in sentiments like "Goddamn right I miss drinking" and "Fuck, I'm blue" with a plainspoken casualness that feels lived-in, believable. We buy it 'cos she doesn't draw too much attention to it, which is a lesson the rest of the album could've easily learned.
All in all, outside of surprising songs like the anthemic stop-and-clap number about facing mortality called "I Am Here", Beautiful Trauma is a bold step from an artist whose career has been largely defined by accessible, biting, and truly distinct singles. She aims for the heart, to speak in confessional terms beyond what she's presented before, but here indulges too readily, leaning towards the generic when she's never had a problem wrangling it before. It's a risk that doesn't entirely pay off, but the last time she went so bold with so little returns (during the low-selling and truly-underrated Tim Armstrong-assisted 2003 effort Try This), she bounced back in fine fashion. Beautiful Trauma is far from Pink's best album, but as time may tell, it may be a necessary step before she hits her next creative peak.