Tina Arena’s ‘Eleven': A Glorious Love Letter to A-Hole Exes
When Eleven surfaced the day before Halloween, I loaded it up immediately on my iPod, threw on my largest scarf and went for a walk down Lake Street in Chicago with a hot coffee in hand.
Minutes passed and I found myself miming along to "I Want to Love You"–easily one of the best ballads of Tina Arena's career–while the wind whipped my pashmina. Eleven isn't for everyone–but it's for the spurned, the heartbroken, it's for those of us looking for a message in a bottle we can send back to our a-hole exes–the manchildren, the men who ghosted on us, the ones who slid into our DMs and then faded out artlessly.
On some level, it's possibly one of the most personal albums that Arena has produced–and maybe it is indeed informed by her first marriage...and yet, that shouldn't matter. On its own, Eleven is a superlative love album.
This is the most wonderful thing about Eleven: It is preciously vulnerable. It is sweeping melodrama. This is her bread and butter. Go back over 20 years to "Chains"–not the start of her career, but one of her biggest hits–and you hear the vulnerability spike during the chorus when her voice soars.
Those vocals could bring down entire cities, if we're being honest.
It was the kind of aching vulnerability that translated well when Arena embarked on a French-language career, too.
This vulnerability powers Eleven from the outset. With overwrought ballads like "Unravel Me" and "I Want to Love You" opening the collection, it becomes immediately apparent that Eleven is a love letter to a ghost–more likely, a lover who has ghosted.
While love is a banal and overdone subject in pop, there are superlative ways to sing about it (hello "Hello"!). Nevertheless, few performers can pull off an entire album's worth of love songs. Despite this, Eleven–nearly a third of which features the word "love" among its song titles–works. Eleven works as a love letter to a-hole ex who ghosted because it digs into the part of unrequited romance that makes us ugly-cry in the face of failure.
Nowhere is this better exemplified than the Kate Miller-Heidke co-write "Not Still In Love With You." This song is not only Eleven's highest point, but it's the pinnacle of this obsession. It captures the desire that lingers long after a break-up–and enumerates the ways in which we try to prove to ourselves that we're over that a-hole ex...when we're obviously, clearly not.
While the chorus tells one story–"I can't wait for you to see me / so I can brush you off / I can't wait for you to call me / so I cannot pick up / I can't wait for you to ask me / so I can tell you that I'm not in love"–it's the pregnant pause between "not" and "still in love with you" that betrays how, clearly, the narrator's still hung up on her a-hole ex.
The shitty thing about a-hole exes is that once they've ghosted on us, we are hung up on them like forever. "Not Still In Love With You" and "I Want to Love You" chronicle that kind of obsession–the inability to let go.
Yet letting go is essential. We have to come to terms with the fact that these man-children...were simply not ready for a healthy relationship. While Arena spends most of Eleven digging into the manic part of infatuation, she does offer a reprieve from it all. Both "Walk With You" and "When You're Ready" wink at the kind of level-headedness sometimes necessary to accept that you can hate an ex for how a relationship failed–and still care about him in the long-run.
If we're being honest, though, break-up albums–and at its core, that is what Eleven most closely resembles–are the best when they're sweeping, desperate, and a little bit angry. As the album closer, "Love Falls" is an exclamation point. The snarl in Arena's voice as she sings, "Trying to get out of the rain!" is satisfying to say the least.
Eleven is not going to shift any paradigms. It is not going to rock the zeitgeist; it is definitely not going to make us rethink the very nature of pop music. And that's okay. Few pop stars ever find their niche as perfectly as Arena has. Tina Arena's calling in life is to give us the kind of full-bodied pop songs for when we feel lovelorn, when shitty men have wronged us. She does it so, so, so well–and to expect anything else of her would be unfair.