On Sept. 13, 2019, indie pop singer and face of PC Music Charli XCX released “Charli,” her third studio album. With lead singles “1999,” “Gone” and “Blame It On Your Love,” her little sliver of the world has held their breath for the latest album.
If you were a teen during Obama’s second term, XCX should be a familiar voice, specifically a direct descendant of the female vocalists on “Video Killed the Radio Star.” She had some sustained success in her native United Kingdom, but on the Hot 100, she had only three real major hits: “Boom Clap,” “I Love It” with Icona Pop and “Fancy” with Iggy Azalea. Two of the three are honestly great songs, and “Fancy” isn’t completely awful but the songs aren’t entirely indicative of XCX as an artist. She still does heartfelt indie pop love songs like “Boom Clap,” but she has tons more edge. Electronic elements and partying still crop up in her work, but “I Love It” and its upbeat vibe have turned weird. Her hip-hop connection has gone from mainstream party rap to dirty underground artists.
As for her actual songs, she’s traveled from the rowdy pop rock of “Sucker” to the dead-eyed EDM of “Number One Angel” to the sunshiny noise-electropop of “Pop 2” while maintaining lyrics of love, insecurity, passion, nostalgia and braggadocio. XCX possesses self-awareness in spades. She consciously draws on a lot of dance-pop tropes what with the Aqua-esque voice, the love songs and a strong mix of irony and sincerity. A love for pop fluff keeps her from being condescending, but sharpness ensures she’s never saccharine.
She’s been rewarded with a strong online following and critical respect, though little chart success. XCX shows few signs of a serious desire for pop stardom: In a world that measures chart success from Friday, she released two of three singles on a Wednesday. On the latest effort, the question is more a matter of exploration and development than of any larger need.
The singles for “Charli” indicate something interesting afoot here. The track “1999” with Troye Sivan is a nostalgic turn-of-the-millennium ditty. It’s silly and has been criticized as more list than song, but the two have fun over a strong beat. “Gone” with Christine and the Queens is a more powerful duet of holding on in an uncaring world, and the Lizzo collaboration “Blame It On Your Love” is a messy EDM banger love song. They don’t build up any larger idea of what to expect beyond “It will be weird.”
Even looking at the collaborator list, “Charli” is a strange experience. Featured artists range from indie/alternative pop artists like Clairo and Kim Petras to rappers like CupcakKe or Big Freedia as well as house DJ Yaeji, Brazilian drag queen Pabllo Vittar and more. The artists broaden the album’s emotional palette, specifically in the more aggressive direction. Posse cuts “Click” and “Shake It” are definite highlights, as well as Christine and the Queens’ emotional performance on “Gone.”
However, the guest list also reveals a weakness in the album. “Charli” strongly resembles 2017 XCX mixtape “Pop 2.” She already made “I Got It” with CupcaKke, Vittar and Brooke Candy; “Shake It” just adds Big Freedia. Petras and Tommy Cash of “Click” also appeared on “Unlock It” and “Delicious” respectively, and both albums in general are highly collaborative. They all bring their A-game, but they made many of the same plays.
The differences diminish further in terms of sound. PC Music head A.G. Cook is a distinctive producer. He wreaks havoc with malfunctioning vocal effects, distorted drums and synths that wander off into the stratosphere when he doesn’t imitate fun, silly dance bops. They’re fairly experimental and can be enjoyed once the taste is acquired, but eventually, one can’t really differentiate between many of the beats of “Pop 2” or of “Charli.” Even the Lizzo track was already remixed and released as “Track 10.”
The singles, however, do stand out from the last LP. The house-influenced “1999,” the DJ Mustard-meets-‘80s-power-ballad “Gone” and the swinging disaster “Blame It On Your Love” are all more radio-friendly. Though they still stand a little left of whatever the current dance-pop song plays on the radio, the resemblance is present.
Lyrically, “Charli” shows more excellence. XCX topically meanders a bit with some parties, success and sex, but the overwhelming aim is isolated misery. Song after song is just XCX bawling her eyes out whether she’s yearning for emotional intimacy or burning for an ex or just sad. She comes at her songs more like a pop star than a singer-songwriter: “Charli” is all about feelings and moments, and metaphors or little details aren’t too high a concern. They still work. Coupled with XCX’s keening, needing voice as well as some good production, the songs can occasionally hit you in the feels, as the kids say.
But nobody really comes to “Charli” looking for an introspective muse, and XCX isn’t one. Like any pop song, emotion on the album lasts about as long as the song, and suddenly the listener is back to Petras calling herself Kim Possible and CupcakKe twerking. The album’s balance of sarcasm and honesty feels a little off, a problem already present on “Pop 2.” The segue from post-breakup devastation to posturing is shaky.
In all honesty, the best song on the album might be opening track “Next Level Charli.” It’s a trembling, building anthem with a set of self-destructive, self-celebratory mantras. The song is almost utopian in how perfectly dystopian the endless cycle of fast cars and freedom becomes. The beat is also a surge of triumph in an electric sea of fear. This, along with “Gone,” shows the most promise for XCX: an artist becoming larger than life with her postmodern reclamation of pop music. Instead, we get a two-thirds worthwhile attempt.
I would recommend “Sucker” or “Pop 2” before “Charli.” The album certainly hits some of her strengths: good collaborators, avant-garde pop production, powerful pop vocals and some lovely songwriting moments. However, the album hits a lot of notes that have already been sung out on “Pop 2,” and XCX can underwhelm. I didn’t hate the album, but I wasn’t impressed. “Gone” still goes hard.