Photo: Marcus Cooper / Courtesy of Atlantic Records

‘Charli’ Sometimes Sounds at Odds with Charli XCX

The long-awaited third LP from Charli XCX is here at last, and nearly half-a-decade of anticipation weighs heavily on the artist and everyone else's expectations.

Charli XCX
13 September 2019

A single individual consists of a variety of characteristics. In addition to the physical, a person also consists of metaphysical traits, including needs, passions, and experiences. As is the case with any conglomeration, a person’s qualities don’t necessarily harmonize with each other, or they may lay at odds with the world in which they reside. At this point in her career, the individual Charli XCX contains a multitude of public layers: songwriting savant, workaholic, frustrated label signee.

Her much-delayed third LP, Charli, presents the differing sides of what appears to be an even more complicated artist than fans may realize. Like many a working creative, Charli grapples with the paradox of pursuing your passion as a business. Though it features the usual draws of her other projects, the album feels less liberated and more self-conscious in a not-always introspective manner. It seems to consist of pieces that aim not to match but to please, reflecting an immense pressure placed by the expectations of the industry, her fans, and herself.

The relentless vigor of the opening track mirrors Charli XCX’s whirlwind decade in music, a continuous stream of songs as varied as you’d imagine from someone who’s worked with Giorgio Morodor and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. “Next Level Charli” lies at the end of her 2010s journey from Tumblr to the punk show to hyperkinetic electro raves. Pounding and largely the same note, Charli opens on as much excitement as it does exhaustion. No wonder she immediately Irish goodbyes from the function a song later.

The uncertain atmosphere hinders the album’s climb to the heights of Pop 2 and Vroom Vroom, projects with similar ideas yet much less restraint when enacting them. Compared to the previous compilations’ sense of liberation, Charli sounds at odds with its some of its invested players and parts: the label, the fans, and Charli the artist. Whereas “Roll With Me” rebelliously shrugs off rhyme scheme for repetition, “Thoughts” drawls and drags its feet without caring what it says or sounds like. “Blame It on Your Love”, an unneeded revamp, seems to exists just because her and Lizzo share both a label and rising profiles in the industry.

When its gears click, Charli glides. The chorus of “Warm” bears a striking resemblance to the verses of Tom Petty’s “Free Falling”, whose protagonist could very well be the fuckboy Charli and Haim confront. Charli at cruising velocity, as seen here and “February 2017” which also skates above allegro electro melodies, sounds equal parts heartbroken and liberated. Run, don’t walk, the same mentality that lends “Gone” its catchiness without sacrificing its ethos. By her lonesome, Charli embodies a bit of Chairlift on “Official”, a shimmering encapsulation of a singer-songwriter in a synthetic rather than an acoustic situation.

Many collaborations also succeed because their featured players fit their molds. “Jump in the deep end / Cause deep down you’re d-, dying” rattled off by the Haim sisters carries the same breezy yet clipped magic of “Falling”. Bratty, Mean Girl energy radiates off of “Click” thanks to the indulgent verses lent by Kim Petras and Tommy Cash. Meanwhile, “Shake It” places its collaborators at its forefront. A.G. even gets a bit of shine the way he gilds and submerges Charli’s unyielding verses. Clairo and Yaeji, understated talents that they are, quietly and effectively turn “February 2017” into the perfect closer, a beautiful and unambiguous plead for forgiveness.

But instead of reconciling, Charli finishes with “2099”. The opening Tie Fighter-like droning recalls the finale of prior collaborator SOPHIE’s “Whole New World”. Both Charli and Troye Sivan, thrilled to backtrack on the ill-fitting “1999”, approach the future with less enthusiasm. Given the precarious state of international tensions and climate change, the IRL future looks just as dire, yet most expect music to offer an escape from this reality. It’s telling that for an unabashed pop savant like Charli, it cannot grant her sweet release this time.

However, a bit of hope glimmers earlier on during album standout “Silver Cross”. A moody slice of EDM, it presents Charli as a savior, a personal bomb shelter shielding her partner from the harsh, metallic synths which envelop them. Amid the noise, she pledges to “never let you go”, which is more poignant than any other promise made on Charli. The din could be the real world; it could also be the pop machine her collaborators say she seeks to disrupt from the inside. Caught in their throes, Charli XCX still has enough faith in herself to save you and, as they say, music.

RATING 6 / 10