Album of the Week: P!nk Grapples With Having So Much to Lose on Heavy-Hearted 'Beautiful Trauma'

Ryan Aylsworth
P!NK

Everything you need to know about P!nk's seventh studio album, Beautiful Trauma, is right there in its choice of lead single, the enervated ballad "What About Us?"

On the other end of the spectrum is the title track and opening cut, which is pop/rock as just about no one but the artist born Alecia Moore knows how to properly deliver: Elegant and bloody, shimmering and grungy. "Tough times, they keep coming/ All night, laughing and fucking," P!nk sings on the pumped-up pre-chorus, over a throbbing, stately synth-rock soundscape from producer-of-the-moment Jack Antonoff that gives the song flight without robbing it of its gravity. It's life-affirming without being pandering. It's widescreen highs, it's blinds-shutting lows. It's "Blow Me (One Last Kiss)." It's "Raise Your Glass." It's P!nk, dammit, as even her most casual fans would know to ID her. It's the perfect lead single. And it wouldn't have made any sense for Beautiful Trauma's introduction whatsoever. 

Instead, P!nk opted for "What About Us?" as the album's first taste: a world-weary howl delivered over a dolorous 4/4 pulse that strongly echoes Coldplay's spectral EDM foray "A Sky Full of Stars," but still projects primarily as "ballad." The song initially reads as a relationship-gone-awry plea for sanity: "What about all the plans that ended in disaster? What about love? What about trust? What about us?" Closer reading (or watching the song's video) reveals that the song is actually more about disillusionment, with the government and He Who Shall Not Be Named: "We are children that need to be loved... But man, you fooled us, enough is enough." Either way, the song trembles with hurt, anger and fear; it's anthemic, but the rallying cry is one of tested faith and anxiety over what comes next. And that's Beautiful Trauma.

But first off: To properly appreciate how improbable it is we're even still talking about P!nk in 2017, you need to go back to the liner notes of 2000 debut album Can't Take Me Home and look at some of her producers on that set: Babyface, Kandi Burruss, Kevin "She'kspere" Briggs. That's how many pop eons ago it was when Moore first made her debut. She began in the age of Destiny's Child, and after coming into her own on 2001 blockbuster LP M!ssundaztood, subsequently navigated her way through the eras of Britney Spears, Avril Lavigne, Kelly Clarkson, Fergie, Lady Gaga, Kesha, Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift -- all without radically changing her sound or personality, and all without  losing her place in the pop stratosphere. In a recent New York Times profile, she attributed her staying power to never being at the center of top 40's orbit: "If you look at any paragraph about pop music, I don’t get mentioned — my name doesn’t come up. And yet, here I go again, right under the wave, duck-diving.”

P!nk's greatness -- four Hot 100 No. 1 hits, 15 top 10 hits, five multi-platinum-certified albums in six tries -- may have consistently flown below the radar, but she's finally seeing some appreciation for how underappreciated she's been. Following a series of early-decade award-show performances that stunned with their virtuosity and grace, she's developed a reputation as one of pop's premier artists, and her longtime work as a leading music video artist earned her MTV's Michael Jackson Video Vanguard award at this year's VMAs. She's a legit live draw with has a deep catalog of hits she can tour behind forever, and even if her increasingly adult pop/rock doesn't necessarily lie at the heart of streaming, she'll live on pop radio ("What About Us" climbed to No. 11 on Radio Songs this week) until she doesn't want it anymore. She's also been married for over a decade, and now has two kids that she's notably attached to. She's never had less to prove, but she's also never had more to lose. And on Beautiful Trauma, she sounds scared shitless by that.

The first two tracks on the set -- the title track and the Eminem-featuring "Revenge" -- feature the freewheeling P!nk we've come to know best this millennium. P!nk doubles down on the volatile romance of her opener with "Revenge," which with its warm organs, sauntering groove, and sweetly sentimental chorus, seems totally at odds with the song's subject of mutually assured betrayal ("We can do revenge together"). In the hands of Alecia and Marshall, the double-cheating sounds downright intimate, a healthy outlet for bad relationship vibes that ends with the couple sounding closer than ever for their unfaithfulness. Surprise surprise, Eminem's contribution is especially virulent: He screeches "SLUT!" at his female lead and ends his verse threatening "You're a whore, you're a whore, this is war!" It's uncomfortable, but part of P!nk's appeal has always been her ability to stay unflinching as she gives as good as she gets, and you can imagine her chuckling to herself during Em's invective, plotting her own return fire.

But even if she's not scared of her quick-triggered co-star, Beautiful Trauma quickly shows that P!nk is far from totally fearless this days. After the album's opening gambit, the album downshifts with the Max Martin-as-Stargate acoustic shuffle of "Whatever You Want" -- in which P!nk dubs her relationship a sinking vessel, but determines to go down with the ship -- and never quite winds up again. The set isn't necessarily draggy: "Where We Go" is propelled by a Robin Schulz-like loping guitar melody, while "Secrets" even has a touch of deep house to it. But it is unmistakably heavy, especially compared to past P!nk collections; even 2012 predecessor The Truth About Love is sparked by far more pop-punk spunk than you may remember. That sense of levity disappears from Trauma almost completely after its first two cuts, and there's still 11 songs to go.

The rest of the album is a catalog of P!nk's most profound anxieties, from growing awkwardly into adulthood in "Barbies" ("I turned into someone that I swore I would never be") to feeling besieged by the state of the world on "Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken" ("There’s rage and terror and there’s sickness here"). The biggest worries are saved for her marriage, though, as the majority of the album's songs feature a relationship on the precipice: On "Whatever You Want" she declares "You're the one I wanna sink with," but a couple tracks later, she's bemoaning “You hold me close, but I don’t feel much… we had a thing, but we lost it," then "I know we fixed it, but it's broken." It's not a breakup album, but it definitely fears becoming one: "Promise me you’ll stay tonight, even if it’s just for one more night," she begs on "Where We Go" -- one of several songs with references to mortality, as if her life depends on her love lasting until morning.

It's an often brutal listen -- likely for husband Carey Hart more than anyone, though it's dangerous to read too much explicit autobiography into P!nk's lyrics, especially since she and Hart are reportedly on good footing these days, and most of the IRL worries she expresses understandably involve her kids and the world they're growing up in. But relationship insecurity certainly seems to have fueled the album on some level, as some moments seem far too vivid to be phoned in.

The rawest comes via final track "You Get My Love" -- P!nk has long excelled at the showstopping closer -- in which Moore and co-writer Tobias Jesso Jr. detail a scenario in which the singer prepares to confess an unforgivable sin to her sleeping beloved once he wakes, silently begging him to accept that even if he can't trust anything else about her afterwards, trust that she still loves him. It's the grown-ass flip side of "Revenge," in which the stakes of a relationship are simply too great to laugh off something like an affair with a "Well I'll show HIM!" smirk, and P!nk delivers it with such quaking dread that you can practically feel the film of cold sweat on her skin, can hear her heart jumping out of her chest. Scale down the belting on the chorus, and you can imagine it as an emotional nadir on side four of The River.

Beautiful Trauma will likely prove a transition album in P!nk's formidable discography, one that after 17 years of consistent pop hitmaking, may finally see her largely ceding top 40 in pursuit of loftier goals -- some Grammys, perhaps, and maybe general acceptance among an NPR crowd of fellow parents. Or not: "What About Us" reaches a new peak of No. 25 on the Hot 100 this week, while "Revenge" is said to have an video on the way that "recall[s] the MTV glory days." P!nk has been inextricable to the pop world for so long that she's officially central until proven marginal. She may use Beautiful Trauma to pivot to a second career as a confessional singer/songwriter. Or maybe next time she'll go with the Jack Antonoff song as the lead single, and reclaim the pop charts as her own from there.

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