review: Charli XCX’s ‘Charli’ is the most complete realization of her artistry yet
Charli, the third album proper from British pop iconoclast Charli XCX, follows a prolific string of singles and mixtapes over the past couple of years, including the previous high-water mark Pop 2. That mixtape was supposedly recorded in 10 days, and it was a marvel, a tight, fleet-footed, collection of art-pop experiments suffused with a kind of manic, anything-goes energy that presumably comes with such a fast turnaround. In contrast to that, Charli feels very much like a big swing; a weird, earnest, fearless, effortfully compelling sprawl of an album that’s both profoundly fun and profoundly psychotic in ways that register as deeply defiant of the mainstream. In a recent profile on Pitchfork, Charli seemed genuinely conflicted, caught between disappointment at the fact that her music hasn’t caught on with the kind of broad pop audience that it seemed like it might when she released “Boom Clap” or opened for Taylor Swift and pride at the fact that she’s too outré for the masses. If that was actually the case, this is an album that’s remarkable for how it continues to burrow down into exactly what it is that she does, with all the specificity that implies. She has the same kind ear for hooks that the most seasoned major label songwriters do, matched with a powerful experimentalist urge. The sugar-coated melodies are liable to dissolve into skronky robo-noise at any moment, and she leverages that knack for curveballs at both the level of the individual song and the entire album.
In addition to highlighting an eclectic cast of guest-stars (like Troye Sivan, Lizzo, Kim Petras, Haim, Yaeji, Sky Ferreira, Big Freedia, Cupcakke and various others), Charli bears the unmistakable sonic imprint of PC Music’s AG Cook, a frequent collaborator, whose futuristic production perfectly complements Charli’s refusal to draw a line between pop and the avant-garde. It might seem simple or reductive to say, but the quality of songcraft here is extremely high, which won’t surprise any longtime fans. Early singles frontload the album--“1999” and “Gone” are absolute straight-ahead bangers, “Warm” is mellow and blissed-out, and “Cross You Out” is massive, a breakup song as bombed-out monolith of aggravation and devastation that, strange as it might seem, recalls industrial metal like Swans and Godflesh. “Thoughts” feels like a codeine-trap take on Radiohead’s “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” an arena-sized slow-jam filled with lush synths that bleed across the edges of the track. And “Blame it On Your Love” repurposes the sad melody from the white-noise tinged Pop 2 standout “Track 10” as a bouncy, raucous, Lizzo-featuring good time. There is no sameness here--every song exists in an absolutely distinct sonic environment, and surprises are always around the corner.
Speaking of surprises, perhaps it was because I’d been hearing a lot of side A in the months leading up to Charli, but the back half of this thing is what really caught me off guard. “White Mercedes” is a startlingly direct love song, a power ballad that wouldn’t be out of place on a rom-com soundtrack, and in the context of this album and the rest of her discography, it feels strangely radical. It’s followed by “Silver Cross,” my favorite song here. It’s a pure late-night adrenaline rush, propelled by a liquid synth line that clicks in with the vocal melody so satisfyingly that it completely defies my descriptive powers.
Charli can be summed up spiritually by a duo of songs that appear towards the end. “Official “ and “Shake It” appear back to back, and they couldn’t feel more different or, together, more exemplary of Charli’s project here. The former is a shockingly straightforward love song, liltingly gorgeous and emotionally frank, a direct shot to the heart that, like “White Mercedes” but better, feels all the more startling for its presence in the midst of such experimentalism. The latter is a stuttery, robo-tripping, deconstructed “dance” song with two separate references to the Ying Yang Twins and dominated by rap verses from pop-adjacent weirdos Big Freedia, Cupcakke, Brooke Candy, and Pablo Vittar. It’s the purest “what the hell was that” moment on an album full of them. It’s big-hearted, naked emotionalism followed immediately by a freaky reclamation of early-2000s masculinist creepoid sex-rap, by a group of queer and femme artists whom Charli has no compunction about showcasing at her own expense.
All of these elements come together for an album that’s genuinely triumphant. It’s a big, idea-stuffed document from one of the most gifted songwriters working in the pop realm. Charli’s been making fascinating pop music since she was a teenager, and this isn’t her first great album, but it does feel like the most complete realization of her distinct identity as an artist to date. It proves that she’s resolutely uninterested in following any of the prevailing trends of her genre--she’s better off forging trends of her own.
Stream the album and watch a bunch of videos from it below. Also, catch Charli on tour.