After 2017’s revelatory Pop 2, there was some reevaluating to be had for Charli XCX, the newly crowned queen of pop music’s second coming. As her music trended further towards the avant-garde, she needed to figure out how to incorporate her newfound interest in experimental sounds and forward-thinking collaborators into a proper studio album, a task she had been avoiding since 2014. Following the release of her two mixtapes in 2017, she wondered to The Fader ( https://www.thefader.com/2017/12/15/charli-xcx-a-g-cook-pop-2-interview): “is the album even valid for me as an artist anymore?” If Charli didn’t even know what a Charli album would sound like, how could we?
With 2019 came a slew of singles, all culminating in the announcement that, finally, we would be getting an answer to that burning question with the self-titled Charli. The record’s tracklist resembled a longer iteration of one her earlier mixtapes, with familiar faces like Cupcakke and Kim Petras offering features, as well as PC Music’s A.G. Cook handling executive producer duties.
While these collaborators seem to promise a project just as focused on experimentation as the previous outings, Charli is ultimately an album with a confused identity. “1999,” a simple but excellent radio-oriented track that has racked up by far the most streams of any of XCX’s recent songs, is followed by the heart-stopping “Click,” a mix of blown-out bass, metallic screeching, and nauseating synths. “Click” ultimately climaxes in a very legit harsh noise segment. It’s all great fun, but the two songs couldn’t be more confusingly opposite of one another, both in sound and ethos.
“Click” brings us to another point where the album falters. While it’s an exciting song in a vacuum, it conceptually amounts to little more than “I Got It” part 2, with umru, the producer of the original, returning for the sequel. Even the structure is roughly the same, making the trump card of the dissonant coda much less impactful. “Click” isn’t the only moment Charli seems to try to capture the lightning in a bottle feeling of some of her earlier songs: “Shake It” picks up the vocalists from “I Got It” and once again tries to do more of the same; let us not even speak of “Blame It On Your Love,” a limp remix of “Track 10” packaged as a new song. While these songs aren’t bad, it’s hard to not feel a bit disappointed with them when knowing just how capable of invention Charli really is.
While these songs look unsatisfyingly backwards, others find Charli progressing in some surprising ways. In “February 2017,” one of the stand-out singles, Charli allows herself moments of vulnerability that are lacking on previous songs. The “a-ha” moment comes when she begins listing apologies: “sorry ‘bout Grammy night, was flying out my mind.” Small but intensely personal details like this are a big change in her lyrics, and the songs hit that much harder because of it. “February 2017” goes onto a glittering finish with Charli hoping for forgiveness. Her voice isn’t full of desperation and forced emotion; instead, she sounds truly lost and even a bit nervous with her final “reply, reply, give me a sign.” Make no mistake, this is as real as she has ever been.
While the lyrics are certainly a step in the right direction, other tracks show off new, experimental ideas musically. “Thoughts,” the best ballad off the album, is a non-stop dizzy pulse of heatwave keyboards while Charli expertly navigates the line between on- and off-key singing in the chorus. “Shake It,” despite its shortcomings, delightfully pulls from ASMR (!) with tickly sound effects, particularly on the vocals in the beginning.
As noted before, not every track on the record is intensely experimental. Charli paints a path forward for the singer’s career with songs like “Gone” and “Cross You Out” that strike a balance between the best sounds of the futuristic, modern and retro camps of pop songmaking. While Pop 2 succeeded with a feeling of intense excitement for dismantling pop, these songs point towards a more mature, level mode of songwriting for Charli XCX. Even if her return to the format of the album may not have been without potholes, it’s clear that there’s plenty more room for Charli to grow, not only up and into the future, but out in all directions.
- Ben Mangelsdorf