“That place between sleep and awake, that place where you still remember dreaming? That’s where I’ll be waiting.”
Not many songs make me cry on the first or second listen, but at the point where Ariana sings, “love how my face fits so good in your neck”, tears were falling and that ache of remembering and missing was very much present.
And yes, I was thinking of someone, as I think everyone will be who listens to ‘imagine’. For better or for worse, we all have the one that got away. The one who from time to time, or maybe in this moment, we a imagine a world with them.
Imagine a world like that
Gossip magazines and even respected media outlets will scour the lyrics intent on finding a subject to pin the words to. Utterly and completely missing the point of why music is made and listened to.
Music and song have been around for centuries. It is present in every part of the world. There is no culture or country that exists without it. It expresses emotions and ideas; experiences and histories of those who compose and sing it. It has been a way to pass on history and experience to the younger generations; a way to document feelings and moments, when writing it down was either impossible or too dangerous to do so.
Music and song are ultimately there to give us connection to one another. Past and present. And perhaps it is a happy accident, that in doing those things, it makes us all feel less alone.
The song, though clearly personal to Grande, is open enough and broad enough that it doesn’t isolate the listener or make you feel like a voyeur to Grande’s own imagination. It invites you in and lets you sit for those three minutes and thirty-two seconds in a suspended reality. A door step of sorts, to sit with Grande and imagine a world like that, a world you wish existed… before stepping back onto the pavement and into reality.
Grande said ‘imagine’ was about “a simple, beautiful love that is now, and forever, unattainable”. It reflects denial, the sadder and perhaps more relatable sister to her song ‘thank u, next’.
‘imagine’ is a slow waltz to a ‘90s ‘R’n’B groove. Opening with heavy echoing beats and vocals that float over the top. With synths pushing and pulling the music and emotions, like heart valves opening and closing, pulling blood back in and pushing it back out
The song is very much a continuation of the sound and vibe, and to some extent the weirdness of her album Sweetener. There is a sparseness to it yet also a heavy ambience too. At times it feels like ‘R.E.M’, dreamy and slow, as if you are in fog of feeling. Not to steal from the film Hook but ‘imagine’ evokes that “place between sleep and awake, that place where you still remember dreaming.”
We go, like up ’til I’m, ‘sleep on your chest/ Love how, my face fits so, good in your neck/ Why can’t you imagine a world like that?
The first utterance of“imagine a world like that”leaves a gap of 3 seconds. Not a long time in the scheme of things but enough of a silence, if you are truly present and listening, immersed in the music and not picking it apart, to just imagine. Each refrain of “imagine a world like that” begins to sound like “imagine our world like that”. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, or maybe it’s just me that hears that?
The lyrics too feel in the realm of sleep and wakefulness, all the while being exquisitely deliberate. They sound like the words you’d say as you roll over and see your person lying next to you in bed.
Me with no makeup, you in the bathtub/ Bubbles and bubbly // Tell me your secrets/ All of that creep-shit/ That’s how I know it’s true
‘imagine’ may not be a retelling of what happened and the denial that it ended, but simply what you wish had happened or merely wishing for a sweet and innocent love that is unattainable.
In the remaining minute and twelve seconds of the song, the string section kicks in wrapped in vibrating synths that descends into bows being pulled across cellos and double basses, bringing with it desperation and longing, not only in its arrangement but also in the vocals.
The frantic pace coupled with the want we have of hopelessly trying to pull back time, to pull back that person and rewrite the story. The desperate reach into the darkness with nothing reaching back at you.
“Can you, imagine it?” is crafted as a call-and-response, with Grande playing both parts albeit with a very subtle difference; the ‘response’ in her vocals layered to create a unison of voices against Grande’s ‘call’ vocals which become louder with each vocalisation until they climb into the whistle note register. As if words have become obsolete in trying to express what she’s feeling.
The question, which is perhaps to a person – real or imaginary; present or past – fragments and devolves into the just the word “imagine”, as if the realisation is beginning to seep in, that the only action here is to imagine. There is nothing else.