Even at the time, Charli XCX’s ventures into the mainstream space felt misguided. For all the success she received from tracks like Boom Clap and collaborations with Icona Pop and Iggy Azalea, it was never the best fit for an artist whose most immediate feature was a rougher, brattier delivery more suited for punk or electroclash, let alone the pop of the time. It’s rather telling, then, that Sucker was pretty much her first and last dalliance into that world, and moving towards a more off-kilter brand of electro-pop of subsequent EPs and mixtapes linked under the PC Music umbrella proved much more fruitful in developing and solidifying a more stable artistic identity. As such, Charli feels like a culmination of sorts of those years of growth, with its semi-eponymous title indicative of a current state of musical certainty and a list of features that reads as a near-exhaustive roll call of Gen Z pop’s cool kids’ club (Troye Sivan, Kim Petras, Christine And The Queens et al), all of which does feel much more comfortable and in-line with where her most longstanding artistic success has laid.
But what’s kind of funny about all of that is, on a lyrical level, Charli really isn’t that far removed from a more conventional, mainstream pop album. That in itself isn’t a bad thing, but it puts an even heavier emphasis on the presentation to land to ensure that not only does it suitably stand out, but works in this pop-adjacent context that Charli has been inhabiting, and that deliberate disconnect is one that doesn’t really coalesce effectively. Far too often it feels as though compromises have to be made for these tracks to work in either way, and even then it’s a toss-up as to whether they’ll actually hit. It leaves Charli as an album whose unpredictability doesn’t feel like a conscious creative decision, but instead indicative of awkward, occasionally slapdash artistic choices that do give way to entertaining moments, but they’re ultimately buried in an album that can’t grasp its own experimentalism as well as it wants to.
It’s not even like there’s a specific rule of thumb for what does and doesn’t work with regards to execution, and for an album that’s already as thematically disparate as most other modern pop albums, it leads to peaks of momentum that can be followed by steep drop-offs before they’ve even had time to crest. It’s most evident in the big collaborations with a number of artists playing off each other that somehow hold more consistency within themselves that compared to each other. Shake It stands as the highlight of the album even with Charli generally muscled to the side to handle the choppy, distorted hook, given that Big Freedia, Cupcakke, Brooke Candy and Pabllo Vittar are all enormous presences more than capable of handling this sort of ignorant club track themselves. On the other hand, Click sees both Charli and Kim Petras floundering in gratuitous AutoTune and the clattering, thunderously inelegant instrumental before Tommy Cash’s awkward but comparatively interesting flow brings the generally shallow flexing to somewhat of a close. There’s an added layer of disconnect when neither track is consistent with anything else on the album, and while Charli is more than happy to pile on the vocal manipulation and ride on the buzzier synths and more abrasive production like on Next Level Charli and Silver Cross, they fit more comfortably on the modern pop side of the divide overall.
To go a step further, when Charli embraces that side more wholeheartedly (while still keeping a far enough distance from her chart-bothering past life), it’s where the best moments easily arise, especially in more vulnerable or tasteful tracks. Gone is a great collaboration with Christine And The Queens that’s able to channel the tension of its tight synths and snapped groove in writing about falling victim to insecurities that are exacerbated by others, while the glittery, ticking production of Warm with HAIM and the fantastic ‘80s power ballad swell of White Mercedes (as well as its infuriatingly familiar vocal cadence on the hook) tap into a love song mould that’s not enormously distinct, but does enough to differentiate itself from the more trite material in that lane. Even if 1999 with Troye Sivan is as shallow as it comes in its yearning for some kind of nostalgic stimulus, it at least sounds like the two of them are having fun. It’s here that Charli does mostly succeed in its goal to achieve a more experimental pop framework regardless of how marginal that may be, but they’re also very isolated moments within what can be a pretty forgettable listen on the whole. It comes as more of a disappointment when looking at how many ingredients have been thrown in here, and they overall materialise as the lumbering percussion and generally perfunctory presence from Sky Ferreira on Cross You Out, or the more bland, sugary conventionality and truncated guest verse from Lizzo on Blame It On Your Love. As clear as the intentions for a big, bleeding-edge contemporary pop album were here, there’s not enough focus to see those ambitions fulfilled, and Charli ends up with more dead weight than it should reasonably have.
Even so, there’s bound to be flocks of fans who’ll immediately deem this as transcendent and game-changing, even though there’s very little here that’s either new or workable in how it actually wants to execute those bigger ideas. Overall though, the biggest payoff from this is how Charli would be far more suited to making a streamlined indie-pop or synthpop album to let her clear talents shine consistently as they do in moments here, rather than being clouded with offbeat thoughts that might have had merit on paper but just end up as bitty and fractured in the most unflattering way possible. There’s definitely gold here for anyone willing to dig, but even right now, it’s hard to say whether it’s worth trawling the waves of filler that thinks it’s far more interesting than it is.
For fans of: Kim Petras, SOPHIE, Christine And The Queens
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Charli’ by Charli XCX is out now on Asylum Records.