So Much Wrong Goin’ On: P!nk’s human condition

hurts2bhuman

Almost 20 years into her recording career, P!nk may have just now provided us the Rosetta Stone to her life’s work. In a song called “My Attic,” from her flinty and soul-searching album Hurts 2B Human, one of pop’s great survivors describes the inner sanctum where all her most closely-held secrets are kept behind lock and key: Internalized trauma, suppressed shame, creeping anxiety, unspoken confessions left to gather cobweb and dust. At the song’s start, P!nk cautions a lover against spelunking through all this accrued shit, but by its end, she’s cautiously optimistic that just maybe she’s found someone who loves her for her whole being– someone who can sort through the clutter in her attic without getting scared away. It’s a perspicuous metaphor for the harrowing nature of intimacy; how entanglement with another person can be liberating and terrifying at the same time.

This cocktail of trepidation and candor is a familiar theme in  P!nk’s songbook: As devotees know, she’s been granting us little glimpses into her attic since the beginning, and with each album she seems willing to open the scuttle just a little wider. When her first record came out in 2000, she was lazily lumped in with the teen pop crowd– she was 21 at the time– but by the release of M!ssundaztood she’d carved out a niche as the guardian and godmother of misfits and outcasts; she nurtured a community of Little Monsters long before Lady Gaga gave them their name. Since then, she’s weathered adulthood more gracefully than any of her contemporaries, and she’s focused her ministry among the m!ssundaztood by chronicling her personal crises with increased openness and heightened specificity. Funhouse was a divorce album; The Truth About Love a reckoning with the high cost of commitment; Beautiful Trauma a weary redemption of deep-rooted pain. Each of these albums smuggle confessional writing into glinting pop constructs, and taken as a body of work they signify a pop star who’s largely unequalled at projecting strength and badassery while remaining lucid about all the hurt she struggles to let go of; all the attic junk she’s hoarded that now crowds contentment out of her periphery.

If Hurts 2B Human doesn’t immediately stand out as a capstone or career-defining masterpiece– it’s another fine album in a catalog absent an indisputable peak–  it may well be the most intentional album P!nk’s ever made about finding peace amidst pain; the fullest flourishing yet of her tough-but-vulnerable style. These 13 songs amount to a personal inventory of all the ugly garbage she’s tried to shove into storage, here dragged into the light for a frank mental health evaluation. Of course some of the voices in her head are ghosts from past relationships; in “90 Days” she duets with Wrabel and channels anguish through the haze and swirl of Autotune, reasoning that a stint in rehab could help her kick drugs or drinking but there’s no place to go when you need to kick a broken heart. In “Happy,” she sounds like she’s using the tools she developed in therapy, confessing to issues with body image, pining for pharmaceutical intervention, psychoanalyzing herself, and landing on the breakthrough revelation that she’s “just scared to be happy.” The therapeutic modality continues in “Courage,” about finding the resolve to make healthier choices when there’s greater comfort in familiar dysfunctions. And “Can We Pretend” takes to the dancefloor for catharsis and escape, a temporary detox from a life of worry and beleaguerment. “Can we pretend that we both like the President?” P!nk chuckles, one of a couple of references here to how cultural and political dislocation can bleed into inward despair. (“There’s so much goin’ wrong outside,” she confesses on “Walk Me Home,” sounding battered but not defeated.) Like Sara Bareilles’ elegant Amidst the Chaos, Hurts 2B Human feels marinated in perilous times; political tumult isn’t the subject, but it is the point of view.

P!nk’s graceful maturation is born out not just in the level-headedness of her mental health inventory, but in the music itself. Nobody makes record like she does, albums that are hip without ever feeling desperate, but also old-fashioned without being stodgy or staid. Though she’s sanded down some of the rough edges from her earliest music in favor of smoother pop textures, she remains anchored in the arena-swelling structures of rock: In “We Could Have it All,” written with her old pal Beck, she sings over an electric pulse and a pouding chorus, post-morteming a relationship that crumbled despite all the odds being stacked in its favor. (“There were no black cats in our path,” she sighs; sometimes the only explanation is that things fall apart.) And in “Walk Me Home,” written with her old pal Nate Ruess of .fun, she demonstrates the ease with which she navigates humanistic anthems, a bit of The Lumineers’ big-footed stomp thrown in for good measure. But she’s never more comfortably in throwback mode than she is when finessing ballads, whether sleek and steely (“90 Days”), string-swept (“My Attic”), or cracked and frayed (the raw acoustic closer, “The Last Song of Your Life”).

P!nk is a classicist but not a dinosaur, and she’s always had smart instincts about how to fold contemporary sounds into her out-of-time constructions. “Can We Pretend,” featuring Cash Cash, channels EDM glitter into contoured AAA pop, while the lithesome opener “Hustle” bristles with horns, sound effects, casual defiance, and cheerful profanity. She brings in king-o’-Americana Chris Stapleton for “Love Me Anyway,” adding some rough and tumble to one of her most doleful weepers. All of these subtle metamorphoses ultimately end up sounding like P!nk, an artist omnivorous enough to stretch herself but self-sure enough to never make it sound like a reach. One of her most dexterous stretches here is in “Hurts 2B Human,” a wounded ballad tricked out with an electo-stutter and a low-key vocal assist from Khalid. Here P!nk sings of human fracture not as a symptom to be cured but a chronic condition to be managed; for close to 20 years now, she’s been showing us how.