Selena Gomez was reborn from a hermetically-sealed fantasyland back into reality when, in 2015, she released her second solo record, Revival. It was the pop star’s beginning of a transition away from Disney incorruptibility towards songwriting that better represented the crossroads at which she found herself. Unlike the overproduced electropop of her 2013 debut, Stars…
Selena Gomez was reborn from a hermetically-sealed fantasyland back into reality when, in 2015, she released her second solo record, Revival. It was the pop star’s beginning of a transition away from Disney incorruptibility towards songwriting that better represented the crossroads at which she found herself. Unlike the overproduced electropop of her 2013 debut, Stars Dance, Revival reflected her expanding sexuality, power, and interest in telling her own stories; Gomez actualized these objectives by posing nearly nude on the album cover, serving among its executive producers, and working with specific songwriters to help translate her experiences. As she proclaimed on the title track, it was her “time to butterfly.”
Over the next five years, Gomez’s journey towards emancipation would be challenged by serious struggles with anxiety, depression, and chronic illness that sidelined her music career and threatened her life. But in 2017, the same year she underwent a risky kidney transplant due to complications from the autoimmune disease lupus, Gomez shared a series of genre-curious singles including the Talking Heads-sampling “Bad Liar.” After checking the cultural pulse, the then most-followed woman on Instagram logged off, removing herself from the public eye once more. Besides popping up for the occasional movie role or fashion collaboration, Gomez focused on herself. “I just needed to let my old self go,” Gomez told Zane Lowe this month.
When Gomez shared the ballad “Lose You to Love Me” last fall, it seemed like the work she put into her physical and emotional wellness had clicked. The song looks at the ways she lost herself in a relationship and solemnly promises to never make that mistake again. While dropping hints at which supposedly “Sorry” singer had been dragging her down, Gomez reclaimed her own narrative. Her anguished soul-searching struck a nerve: “Lose You to Love Me” became Gomez’s first Billboard No. 1. Though the song’s drama is an exception, its moral of losing love and gaining self is the guiding ethos of her third record, Rare. While none of these 13 songs attempt the subtle weirdness of “Bad Liar” and the emotional thesis—self-love!—can be a bit one-note, Rare is the 27-year-old’s most cohesive record to date. It feels spiritually in tune with the woman who once cheerfully told Vogue that people would be surprised to learn how much she loves “depressing things.”
But Rare’s celebration of autonomy, resilience, and growth is overwhelmingly upbeat. After waving goodbye to a lover who does not respect her worth on the blissed-out self-titled opener, Gomez cleanses her heart with an electro-pop party on “Dance Again.” Dancing through pain is by now a tried-and-true motif in pop music, but the sentiment holds extra weight for Gomez, who undoubtedly knows from her lupus how it feels to be powerless over your body. But Rare doesn’t dwell on heavy realities like chronic illness or the ice-cold grip of depression or, really, any sadness lingering after heartache. When Gomez looks back on toxic relationships wracked with mistrust or self-sabotaging anxiety spirals, her perspective is more grateful than regretful, as if to say that everything in life is a valuable lesson.
Gomez’s biggest hurdle as a musician has long been her voice. Low and breathy, her understated vocals are better suited for intimate contemplation than big, belted catharsis. For the first time, Gomez seems to have a grasp on her range and mainly sticks to a husky, bedroom-eyes murmur instead of attempting bravado. Her best performance arrives on the muted, throbbing “Vulnerable.” Though the wordplay can be a bit heavy-handed—“If I let you cross my finish line, then would you wanna make it?”—Gomez sounds firm and assured even when she dips into a whisper. Guided by a vast team of songwriters and producers including Swedish duo Mattman & Robin, Simon Says, and Finneas (of the Eilish brood), Gomez dips her toes into some du jour sounds: “Ring” does a diet-“Havana” with a “Smooth” riff thrown in for good measure; “Fun” aims for a “Bad Liar” redux with a snappy bassline, handclaps, and bubbly frivolity; “Cut You Off” plays with downtempo funk and a familiar yoo-oo-oo chorus. Notably, the songwriting duo of Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter, whose melodic playfulness was all over Revival, only appear together on “Lose You” and its clubby companion single “Look At Her Now.”
But Gomez’s malleability can also be her downfall. Though she has a writing credit on every song, a majority of the tracks on Rare’s second half feel impersonal and underwhelming. These songs feel like they could be sung by anyone, and you can’t help but wonder what Gomez saw in them. On “People You Know,” she avoids confronting any real feelings of regret by wallowing beneath a frigid, tiptoeing beat and stale chorus. The trumpet-tinged kiss-off “Kinda Crazy” feels totally inconsequential. Any reference to the relationship-in-question’s halcyon days is so submerged in tired figures of speech about fire and water that their actual separation feels anticlimactic. What is meant to be a seductive liaison on “Crowded Room”—which features a middling appearance from rapper 6LACK and borrows a feeling from Cassie circa 2006—comes off as lethargic and forced.
Rare’s insipid gear shift culminates with its closer, “A Sweeter Place.” Despite his brief contribution, the song feels dominated by the melodramatic-stoner aura of its guest, Kid Cudi, all Auto-Tune and heavy synths. If only the song focused on unpacking one of Rare’s most compelling—albeit cheesy—lines: “Holding hands with the darkness and knowing my heart is allowed.” Sadly, this intriguing notion of finding dignity in depression is erased by a painfully vapid chorus: “Is there a place where I can hide away/Red lips, French kiss my worries all away/There must be a sweeter place/We can sugarcoat the taste.”
“Vulnerable ain’t easy, believe me, but I go there,” Gomez proclaims near the beginning of Rare. Maybe so. But it’s difficult to come away from Rare with any real perspective on who Gomez is other than that she doesn’t want to be the person she was, whoever that similarly mysterious shadow was. Unfortunately for pop stars everywhere, exposing your soul does not equal examining it. Gomez tries, but never quite succeeds at doing either here. Her introspection can only go so deep when it’s paired with sleek, easy songwriting that lets her slip by, just another specter.
Buy: Rough Trade
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