Album of the Week, March 22: Funhouse by P!nk

PinkFunHouseAlecia Moore was born in Pennsylvania in 1979. She developed an early interest in music thanks to her father’s at-home guitar and vocal performances. She began singing in junior high and wrote lyrics as an outlet for her feelings and frustrations. She adopted the stage name “Pink” — a childhood nickname later famously stylized with an exclamation mark — and sang in a series of female vocal combos. By the time she was 16 she had been in three groups that had disbanded and was singing as part of Choice, a trio that got signed to LaFace records in Atlanta. They made an album that got shelved; producer L.A. Reid, impressed with P!nk’s strong vocals, told her she should go solo or go home. Her solo debut featured a dizzying array of hip-hop collaborators, blending her smart, sassy teen star persona with an infectious urban groove. She achieved significant chart success but felt trapped in a musical mold.

P!nk recruited Linda Perry of 4 Non Blondes to help with her second album. The rock muscle that Perry contributed rounded out P!nk’s sound and set the stage for a massively successful pop career. By 2008, she found herself in a dark place. Almost a decade into a superstar career, she was overwhelmed with the pressures and privileges. Her on-again-off-again relationship with motocross racer Carey Hart was on the skids after a brief marriage. She travelled to work on her next album, spending significant time in London with Eg White and in Stockholm with Max Martin. The result was a powerful personal statement and pop masterpiece.

Title Funhouse
Act P!nk
Label LaFace / Zomba Release Date  October 24, 2008
Producer Max Martin, Eg White, et al.
U.S. Chart  #2 U.K. Chart  #1
Tracks
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. So What [#1]
  2. Sober [#15]
  3. I Don’t Believe You
  4. One Foot Wrong
  5. Please Don’t Leave Me [#17]
  6. Bad Influence
  7. Funhouse [#44]
  8. Crystal Ball
  9. Mean
  10. It’s All Your Fault
  11. Ave Mary A
  12. Glitter In the Air [#18]

Breakup albums can be tricky things. While P!nk has made it clear that Funhouse isn’t just about her relationship with Hart, those aspects of her life clearly informed the writing and recording. Drawing on her almost infamous personal strength, she also opted to present her most open and vulnerable self in music for the first time, aided by supportive collaborators like White and Martin. The result is a dynamic emotional whirlwind, ultimately uplifting but comfortable with its full range of emotion and experience.

Things kick off in classic P!nk style with the sassy swagger of So What. It’s a brilliant, angry kiss-off song, opening with the telling “Guess I just lost my husband.” Filled with the braggadocio of fame, it has just enough implied self-doubt to set up the impending musical roller coaster. Sober is a stark counterpoint, a dark rocker about independence that tosses aside the excesses and hopes for a positive single life. While inspired by a party filled with drunk friends, it’s a larger metaphor about identities that the singer describes as “How do I feel so good with just me, without anyone to lean on?” Her vocal is more raw than usual, a nice touch that the production makes the most of.

That vulnerability moves into sharp focus with I Don’t Believe You. Opening with an acoustic guitar and hushed vocal, the lovely track captures the confusion of separation. Strings kick in for the chorus as P!nk delivers an aching vocal that shows off her range. It’s a quietly powerful track and demonstrates the flawless sequencing of the album. One Foot Wrong moves from vulnerability to crisis, as the singer teeters on the brink of losing control. Dark and brooding, it also has a nice urban groove that hearkens back to the first days of P!nk’s fame as she belts out a passionate, agonized chorus.

Trying to pull herself back from the brink, she offers up one of her best musical moments, the playful and pained Please Don’t Leave Me. It’s a smart song that finds her owning her part of a broken relationship. With a great guitar figure, playful backing harmonies, and a fine lead vocal, it’s a flawless pop gem. On Bad Influence the angry diva comes back to the fore. It’s a fun romp of a song, a wink and a nod back to the opening track and a nice bit of sequencing that illustrates the back-and-forth of grief and coping. It’s also good rock star fun of the sort only P!nk can deliver.

She considered calling the album Heartbreak Is A Motherfucker, opting instead to use the middle song as a title track. The lyrics capture the dichotomy of carnivals — they are supposed to be unrestrained fun but contain an element of fear. As P!nk observed in her online biography:

Carnivals are supposed to be fun, but really they are kind of creepy … and that’s like life to me, and love. Love is supposed to be fun, but it can sometimes be really scary.

Bonus points for making the phrase “evil clowns” actually work in a pop song. The slinky groove and wordplay make for a smart, angry statement of purpose. Crystal Ball builds on the carnival metaphor. Recorded in a single take, it’s a raw, acoustic track that shows off P!nk’s vocals nicely. It’s reminiscent of the dark best of 70’s Fleetwood Mac, an interesting note in the very modern setting of Funhouse that works surprisingly well.

On Mean, P!nk gets serious about the two-sides-to-every-story adage. It’s a wonderful dissection of the way both partners contribute relationships — for better or worse. With a bluesy barrelhouse roll, it’s an energetic, cathartic song. The relationship journey concludes with the ironic It’s All Your Fault, another highlight in the whole P!nk catalog. A driving rock anthem, it belies its title as the singer owns her complicity in the illusions of the relationship. It’s a smart, emotional song with a beautiful, glittering edge. The driving rhythm is breathtaking, and P!nk’s vocals match it beat for beat.

The last two songs form a sort of coda. Ave Maria A is a socially conscious song that builds on the earlier Dear Mr. President. It’s a solid track with a surging beat and great wordplay, but feels almost out of place after the tight song cycle. That minor disconnect is salvaged by the sweetly redemptive closer, Glitter In the Air. Far gentler than the title suggests, it’s an honest look at the way we stumble through life. The subtly anthemic backing track provides just the right ballast and the final effect is quietly redemptive. It’s a nice wrap-up to a powerful journey.

P!nk is a smart, talented rocker with a great pop sensibility. On Funhouse she draws on all her strengths and influences, crafting a lasting emotional collage. Deeply personal, arrogantly diva, emotionally resonant, in the end it’s a lovely look at the intimate ways we interact. Alecia Moore continues to make wonderful music, but this disc stands out as a singular moment in an impressive career.

FURTHER LISTENING: P!nk’s albums are a mixed bag, with a diverse array of contributors making each album its own complex microcosm. Of the albums before Funhouse, the most cohesive is Try This. It was also her biggest commercial failure — go figure. The Truth About Love, her only full-length follow-up to Funhouse so far, is a solid album that shows her best effort was no fluke. In general, while there are decent tracks on each album, P!nk has been smart enough to release the strongest material as singles. That makes Greatest Hits…So Far!! the best place to turn for the casual fan.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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