Even on an album of gorgeous production and expert vocal performance, "Ghostin" is an immediate sonic standout. There's no drums and only the faintest bed of bass to provide support at first, while Grande's voice has been forced into the spotlight, sounding almost uncomfortably close to the microphone. As the song develops, minor reinforcements arrive in the form of backing vocals (courtesy of collaborators Tayla Parx and Victoria Monet) and staccato strings, but Ariana still sounds profoundly vulnerable at the track's center. Given the subject matter, it's not hard to guess why.
As with Sweetener half a year ago, fans unwrapping Thank U, Next for the first time this Friday (Feb. 8) were undoubtedly hoping to uncover lyrics that clearly reflected the eventful specifics of Grande's extremely eventful last few years -- many of the entanglements of which she sang about quite directly in the set's title track and lead single. But whereas that track viewed her much-tabloided drama with the wisdom and perspective afforded by distance -- even as it dropped just weeks after the official end of one of the relationships it addresses -- "Ghostin" sounds like a transmission directly from one of its cruelest moments, a tear-stained diary entry being written in real time.
There aren't a lot of unique perspectives left to be sung from in pop music when it comes to the love song, but there also aren't a lot of pop singers who have had life experience quite like Ariana Grande the last few years. "Ghostin" comes from a moment of fragile intimacy between two lovers haunted by an absent third party, whose presence is too overbearing for either of them to even try to deny ("I know you hear me when I cry/ I try to hold it in at night"). She apologizes in strained upper register for being so overcome, and thanks her partner for his patience and understanding, reassuring him, "We'll get past this, we'll get through this" -- but she also can't help but admit, "I wish he were here instead." It's a brutal song about an understandable but untenable situation, and it would be incredibly powerful even if we couldn't make an educated guess about who the IRL names behind its pronouns are.
But of course, we can. It's pretty impossible to hear "Ghostin" without imagining the spectral presence hanging over to be that of the late Mac Miller, star rapper and tortured ex of Grande's -- and perhaps the new man to be comedian Pete Davidson, whose whirlwind romance with and engagement to the pop star coincided with Miller's untimely death. Grande hasn't confirmed that -- she's described the song as being about "feeling badly for the person you're with bc you love somebody else. feeling badly bc he can tell he can't compare," which could apply to just about any love triangle, tragedy-stricken or no -- and really, there's no reason for her to. But regardless, the heaviness of "Ghostin" certainly feels like something more than simple mixed emotions is weighing on it, and that notion would seem to be reinforced by the choice of song title. (Many fans have even theorized that the background moans of "Ghostin" are a warped permutation of the strings on Miller's Swimming cut "2009.")
The rest of Thank U, Next finds Grande less overwhelmed and more assertive -- following track "In My Head" sees Grande coming to terms with her lover not being the thing she imagined, snapping at him "Look at you, boy, I inevented you," over a murmuring trap beat. By the album's three-song closing run, she seems to have totally moved on, treating herself to the spending spree of "7 Rings," closing her own personal burn book on the title track and even getting frisky again with "Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I'm Bored." It all just leaves "Ghostin," the album's barest, most emotional track as a singular experience on the album: one that, appropriately, lingers with you well after it's gone.