You can tell a lot about an artist by the songs she chooses to cover. So when you catch Charli XCX turn in her own interpretations of “I Want Candy“, the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way“, and Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me“, the conclusion one can draw is obvious: this girl loves pop music. That is to say, full-tilt, Top 40, chorus-stuck-in-your-head-for-days kind of pop music. In fact, she loves it so much that she started writing super-catchy pop hits of her own, her guest spot on Icona Pop’s inescapable “I Love It” becoming so omnipresent that it even inspired an entire wretched Kidz Bop music video. Remember: you can’t buy this kind of ubiquity. Something that culturally massive has to be earned.
Yet the Cambridge-born Charli hasn’t always had it this easy. For the longest time, she tried to gain notoriety as a dance-pop artist, with early minor club hits like “You (Ha Ha Ha)” getting all sorts of top-notch remix treatments even as her singles remained largely ignored by the mainstream. However, appearing on a chart-crushing smash like Iggy Azaelia’s “Fancy” can do a lot for one’s profile, and when coupled with “Boom Clap” — a cut from The Fault in Our Stars that basically sounds like the gritty reboot of a John Hughes soundtrack — the anticipation for a full-length from Charli had gotten to the point where she actually pushed her new album’s release date back by a few weeks so she “can launch the album properly“.
Thus, despite being her second full-length (or third when you count her unreleased 2008 debut which she’s all but disowned), Sucker serves as Charli’s red-carpet introduction to the world. Perhaps what’s most surprising about the whole affair is that even though it drips with swagger and hooks to spare, Sucker is an album that is decked out in nods and references to a lot of ’80s pop music tropes. It’s a disc that grew up believing that Wang Chung would’ve sounded way better if they were a punk band instead. Yet amidst the numerous fuzzed-out guitars and Debbie Harry ‘tude, Charli tries her darndest to be all aggro-swag while simultaneously being the smartest student at the Pop Music Academy. In doing so, she forgets that even something as trashy as mainstream pop music can still work wonders if it at least contains a heart that beats in 4/4 time. More often than not, Sucker just ends up being too clever for its own good.
Opening with a rather literal rallying cry of “Fuck you!” on the title track, Charli wastes no time in establishing a party-hearty atmosphere that isn’t too far removed from those who know her from Icona Pop. The chants in the song’s background come off like a double-time rendition of Baltimora’s “Tarzan Boy”. This frenetic energy carries through on the rest of the ballad-free Sucker; there isn’t a single song here that crosses the four-minute mark. The whole affair gets to the good stuff before promptly leaving on a high note, messy things like “bridges” tossed to the side like an emptied Solo cup.
On a musical front, Sucker feels like an extended riff on Laura Branigan’s “Self Control”, with a pinch of Lita Ford’s “Shot of Poison” and a dash of Olivia Newton-John’s “Twist of Fate” thrown in for good measure. Charli picks good female icons to cop poses from, because even at her most tomboy-ish, Charli understands that despite some listener’s reservations towards the notion of what a “female pop star” can do, this very preconception allows her to delve into the aggressive and the risqué without ever coming off as crass, the barely-there entendre of “Doing It” capable of being sung by Kidz Boppers and drunken adults alike without a hint of irony, even if the meanings change from listener to listener.
Lyrically, Charli spends a majority of the disc talking about living the good life and doing what you want, defiant of cultural norms in a somewhat generic tone even as she nails the specifics. “My platinum troubles are downing in pink champagne” she croons on “Gold Coins”, which basically turns into Sucker‘s beer-stained thesis. Charli spends one minute “feeling real rock ‘n’ roll” because she’s got “Rolling Stone on the phone” on the somewhat more blasé “Die Tonight” before dismissing a suitor because “I can do it better on my own” in the masturbation ode “Body of My Own” the next. Some listeners may find that there is a lot of connective tissue between Sucker and Ke$ha’s entire lyrical oeuvre, but in all fairness, Charli herself doesn’t do much to distance herself from those well-worn partygirl tropes. Her tune “Hanging Around” even sounds like a cheap knockoff of Ke$ha’s own “Gold Trans Am”, which was in itself a knockoff of Joan Jett.
Even though Sucker clocks in at just a hair over 40 minutes, so much of the album winds up repeating itself thematically that despite the giddy sugar rush one feels when overloaded with hooks like these, a surprising amount of the songs here don’t have that much staying power, especially during the disc’s final stretch. Sure, there are still wonderful surprises to be found, such as the number “Breaking Up”, which turns out to be a real keen Go-Go’s homage. But the amazingly generic “Caught in the Middle” — with a chorus that talks about how “our hearts got caught in the middle, caught in the middle of love” — truly feels undercooked, as Charli has proven time and time again that she’s so much better than this kind of clichéd pablum.
Yet despite its flaws, there is still so much to like on Sucker. The glittering ’50s prom dance of a finale “Need Ur Luv” showcases a softer side of her voice than what most listeners are used to, while the ass-kicking second single “Break the Rules” treats synth pads like rock guitars, ultimately walking away with a hook that’s even more memorable than “Boom Clap”. With her monster guest spots and sharp songwriting chops, it’s obvious that Charli XCX isn’t going to be leaving the pop music firmament anytime soon. While Sucker makes for a brassy introduction, one can’t help but shake the feeling she’s only teasing us this time out, showing us that she’s clearly got what it takes to go far in the industry despite the fact that she is obviously capable of so much better than even this.
You’ve got us hooked, Charli. Now show us what you’re really made of.