why you need to listen to charli xcx’s new album

On ‘Charli’, the singer imagines a world where the future still exists.

by Nathan Ma
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13 September 2019, 11:01am

Charli XCX has always felt like a familiar artist. She sings with a nasal bravado reminiscent of Gwen Stefani and Santigold; her trap-lite delivery owes as much to Future as it does to Uffie. Thematically, she was obsessed with love, lust, loss, and life filtered with a childlike urgency. Her repertoire has moments of Britney Spears’s early work.

She emerged in 2012 as the First Lady of YOLO, co-penning Icona Pop’s “I Don’t Care”, before leaning into her do-what-I-want tenacity in the chorus of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” and on “Boom Clap”, her first solo appearance on the Top 10. On her third studio album, however, she is at her most ambitious and daring. Her sights are set on a far and distant horizon: Charli is a vision of pop music’s brightest future.

At 27, Charli XCX is part of a generation whose fate is uncertain. The classic models of family, faith and finances seem outmoded when glaciers are melting and our governments face impending collapse. Her songs are wrapped up in topics easily dismissed as frivolous, both because of her youth and her femininity: what’s the point of nurturing a crush when we’re careening toward a near-certain climate catastrophe? But in her music, Charli pays these anxieties no mind. Her songs are self-involved, and that’s the point. She offers no grand gestures, and she writes no manifestos. At her best, Charli spells out her heartbreaks and hangovers in no uncertain terms. Part of Charli’s lasting appeal is that when faced with a cliff, she doesn’t hobble on the ledge -- she dives off headfirst and we all scream along.

Other people are propelled by the same wish to be consumed by the unknown. Sucker, Charli’s last full-length album, was released in 2014, when the early signs of irony fatigue dovetailed with an insatiable drive for a world ruled by which was newer, better, more prospective and less grounded in fact than fiction. Tesla was rolling out the first batch of self-driving cars, Jeff Bezos poured half-a-billion dollars of his own wealth into space exploration and, most crucially, a sonic revolution was set into motion by divisive a London-based music collective: PC Music.

Founded by Goldsmiths grad A.G. Cook, PC Music -- more of a movement than a record label -- was home to a rotating cast of airbrushed rebels, prima donna pop princesses and chaotic-neutral producers. There was something exciting about their hammed-up synths and pitched-up vocals in a year where “Happy” by Pharrell ruled the charts. It was a space for people who just wanted to be overwhelmed–who wanted to feel more, not better.

For Charli, A.G. Cook signed on as the co-executive producer, and there are traces of his glossy, fibreglass fingerprints all over the album. Take “Gone”: a booming synth line sets the stage with pared-down percussion as Charli and Christine and the Queen’s Héloïse Letissier duel their anxieties. The song implodes in its latter third, the vocal lines stuttering as the frenetic drum kit and synths spin out and an auto-tuned chorus envelops both singers. The moment feels like PC Music’s first releases -- uncontrollable, uncanny and unrestrained in their full-throttle excitement -- but this time with Charli’s signature wink and a shrug.

As a songwriter, Charli XCX has always been pop music’s outlier. She picks apart familiar themes of sentimentality with swagger. It’s why we celebrated “Boys” -- the song suspended us in a daydream, rendering “boys” into an idea as harmless and simple as “joy” or “pleasure”. At other points, it’s what left us feeling cold. When Charli linked up with PC Music-affiliate Sophie and Hannah Diamond for her Vroom Vroom EP in 2016, it was received to dry critiques. The raps felt disengaged, the doom synths and tinkling arpeggios were presented with a nihilist’s abandonment of narrative, and the project seemed to push envelopes for pushing envelopes’ sake (although the title track slaps hard).

2017’s Number 1 Angel and Pop 2 mixtapes were another story. Angel’s “3am (Pull Up)” was a text-your-ex anthem and Pop 2’s “Backseat” was an ode to regretting it in the cab ride home. Sonically, stylistically, and aesthetically future-forward, the mixtapes carried her signature songwriting with a new veneer. She took the edge off of PC Music’s supersonic productions, whipping them into radio-ready pop. In this album Charli brings back the petulance, pettiness and starry-eyed fervor of her breakout tracks, “I Don’t Care”, “Fancy” and “Boom Clap”.

We’re presented with a dizzying vision of our destinies, distorted through robotic filters and floating over heavy electric whirrs. “Click” features Kim Petras and Tommy Cash for a braggadocio strut through an Arca-esque landscape characterised by emergency sirens and blown-out synths. At times, the album sounds like a basement club in 2050 -- “Cross You Out” sounds like a prom slow-dance from the future and trap-ballad “Thoughts” feels like swaying back and forth under late-night neon lights that cut through a fog of smoke.

Elsewhere, Charli is a straight-shooter: Pop 2’s “Track 10” is reimagined in the bouncy “Blame It On Your Love” with Lizzo, “White Mercedes” and “Official” blossom slowly like lighters-in-the-air Julia Michaels songs on shrooms, and Charli offers her reimagining of 80s power-ballads on “I Don’t Want To Know”. AI, automation and robotic hearts -- these visions of the future can feel cold and clammy, but Charli is sentimental and heartfelt, and it’s hard not to feel for a femmebot when, on “I Don’t Know”, she’s lamenting, “Kisses that fall on her lips/Kisses that should be mine.”

The album works best when it sets its sights on the horizon: Charli and Troye Sivan meander through nostalgic pop culture references on “1999” near the top of the album, but album closer “2099” is a much more exciting collaboration between the two. While the former is steeped in shared throwbacks, the latter is an exercise in imagination as they hurtle through space and time and anxiety. “I Shake It” is another clear standout as Big Freedia, CupcakKe, Brooke Candy and Pablo Vittar trade bars over an interstellar beat like Brockhampton: Fury Road. The track is both a journey to and a taste of the future. At times, it sounds like it’s bubbling up underwater; at others, CupcakKe delivers an ASMR-ready whisper rap before Pablo Vittar burns the whole thing down with a verse so fiery and turbo-charged that it feels like the song is about to launch like a rocket ship. The beat changes frantically, built from an unconventional soundboard stocked with loops of heavy breathing, elongated hisses, and what sounds like a pitched-down cowbell. The production is sharp, unexpected, and so far left field that it sounds like a Boiler Room set played out in under five minutes.

What’s exciting about Charli isn’t that it’s progressive pop music, or music at all -- it’s that, with the help of Clairo, CupcakKe, Lizzo, Yaeji, and a whole roster pop’s favourite provocateurs, the album presents something to look towards. Every day news is damning; we’re coasting closer to economic, political and environmental collapse every day, and the world in 2099 will likely be unrecognisable to what we know now. It’s easy to feel defeated, but Charli, with its seductive swagger, heavy heartbreaks, and club-ready raps, refuses to accept that. Instead, we see the future just as bright, filled with our anxieties, our aspirations and even our mornings after.

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Charli XCX