Dua Lipa 2024
Photo: Tyrone Lebon / Permanent Press

Dua Lipa Sets a Major Breakthrough for Indie and Pop Music

With the help of Kevin Parker and Danny L. Harle, Dua Lipa’s new album Radical Optimism sounds like Tame Impala meets PC Music and goes to headline Glastonbury.

Radical Optimism
Dua Lipa
Warner Records
3 May 2024

“Excellent. It would be impossible not to like it,” said one random passerby when Dua Lipa gave him a one-in-a-lifetime chance to be the first in the world to listen to her newest and long-awaited single, “Houdini”, right on the street. In late 2023, the catchiness and danceability of her just-announced third studio album, Radical Optimism, were not so apparent, but these words eventually became prophetic. 

Four years have passed since the release of the sonic-trendsetting, award-lavished, and widely acclaimed Dua Lipa’s second album, Future Nostalgia. During that time, it was hard not to wonder: What do we expect from a musician on Time‘s top 100 most influential people list who kickstarted a trend of disco and dance-pop music revival and whose record found itself at the top of the pops in 15 countries, won a Grammy, and was named the best British album of the year at the Brit Awards?

The same four years have passed since the release of Tame Impala‘s album The Slow Rush, which seemed to be deliberately recorded to showcase Kevin Parker’s visionary production skills perfectly. Well, it was also very tempting to ask yourself: What do we look forward to from an indie darling who has come a long way from a niche Australian psychedelic project to a sought-after producer who has worked with Rihanna, Travis Scott, the Weeknd, Lady Gaga, and Dua Lipa now?

It’s easy to focus solely on Parker’s production in Radical Optimism within this text, which would not be correct. Still, writing only about Lipa’s authorship of this record would be equally unfair. Regardless of the percentage of contributions, this is a win-win for both the co-creators of this album and, more importantly, for the indie scene and pop music. The former gains another precedent for the successful reinvention of stadium-worthy hits with indie music tools, and the latter is really diverse and sophisticated production.

Parker’s signature dreamy and radiant psychedelic tessellations were perfectly audible on Rihanna‘s sprawling “Same Ol’ Mistakes”, Kali Uchis’ hypnagogic “Tomorrow”, Travis Scott’s echoey “Skeletons”, and the Weeknd‘s garbled “Repeat After Me (Interlude)”. His psychedelic magic touch was even present in Lady Gaga‘s “Perfect Illusion”, though it was cut down. All of this is even more evident in Radical Optimism. It seems like he went all in on his first big album production work, saturating it with an infinite amount of tunes from the proud indie rocker playbook, something Dua Lipa had dreamed of since her first record.

“When I was writing my first album, I was kinda having thoughts about my third album. I thought that by the third album, I would maybe be deserving of working with Tame Impala,” she told Zane Lowe. And here it is — a rare bird in the world of pop music, effervescent bangers mixed with “1970s-era psychedelia” and the “rawness, honesty, confidence and freedom of 1990s Britpop”.

The most indicative in this sense is the lead single and quite possibly the main summer hit “Houdini”, which consists of… well, let’s bend our fingers: Talk Talk’s “It’s My Life”, Gary Numan’s “Cars”, a bit of Van Halen, Michael Jackson, ABBA, the Weeknd, and — signature Tame Impala psychedelic synths that give this song an epochal scope similar to “Let It Happen”. From this one cut, it was already safe to say that we have a more profound and detailed work than Future Nostalgia. Compared with her debut record, the differences are even more obvious — it’s like Sandra Bullock’s leap into the atmosphere in Gravity

In tandem with Danny L. Harle, known for inventing the new personal genre called harlecore, and collaborations with Caroline Polachek and Charli XCX, Dua Lipa and Parker made Radical Optimism sound extremely lush and slick but raw and fresh. Sometimes, it’s noticeable how this rich and eclectic musical instrumentation lives its own life with its highly detailed palette of sounds and references to music history. Parker makes good old pop but with many details from indie and Tame Impala-ish atmospheric patterns, while Harle adds PC Music sharpness and dynamics to it. 

The first thing that’s important to accept before listening is that this is a way more reserved and auteur record without a battery of in-your-face bangers hitting right on the mark. The three singles are the most stadium-sized hits here, with “Houdini” and “Training Season” at the top, which Parker certainly can add to the list of his main life achievements. The next head-turned spark is “Whatcha Doing”, with a Britney Spearsian 2000s pop vibe and a glimpse of her hyperpop heir, Hannah Diamond. Other tunes of Radical Optimism require much more patience with some amount of tries to grow on you.

“It’s not a broken heart if I don’t break it / Goodbye doesn’t hurt if I don’t say it,” sarcastically sings Dua Lipa in what may be her best lines from the album in the Craig David fever dream “French Exit”, where soulful and groovy guitar strums and odd pipe showily collide with drums and percussion. It’s not a hit if she doesn’t mean it, we can say here using her words. Elsewhere, “These Walls” gives us a subtle No Doubt fleur mixed with Benee-like moments. Continuing her words, if these walls could talk, they would sing along and brighten up your loneliness like the talking vending machine Brendan from Cyberpunk 2077.

“How long, how long,” funny and slightly cringe at the same time, laments Lipa to the prancing, galloping beat in “Falling Forever”, with a bit of Eurodance in the vein of Eiffel 65’s “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” or even E-Type’s “Angels Crying”. And this memetic approach comes back like a boomerang on “Maria” with its bubbling synths and incredibly crazy PC Music-indebted pipe. These two tracks, against “Training Season” and “Whatcha Doing”, give us a feeling of a slight differences between the two production methods of Danny L. Harle and Kevin Parker. Maybe separately, they would produce two different and self-sufficient albums, but definitely without such a tense variety of tunes. 

Most of her disco-soaked club hits from Future Nostalgia, which unquestionably changed a lot in the music industry, were nothing else than high-energy earworms. However, mostly, they felt like intentionally constructed hits with a pinch of creativity that were made upon a strict recipe and tight label/genre restrictions — red lines you don’t want to cross to find yourself on the side of the mainstream road of chart-topping music. In her own words, that was like the modern architecture of John Lautner, stylish but too spacey. Keeping this in mind, it’s hard not to admit that Radical Optimism’s tunes sometimes sound even bigger and poppier but are 100%-true, handmade, detailed, and strange simultaneously.

“It hits me like an arrow,” sings Lipa in “Training Season”, adding, “Got me feeling vertigo.” “I must’ve loved you more than I ever knew / I’m happy for you,” she reports in “Happy For You”. “I’m (I’m) falling deep (Falling deep) / Deep in your arms, baby / Baby, I’m yours to keep,” we hear in “Falling Forever”. Yes, the lyrics still don’t pretend to diaristic vulnerability and frankness of glass-fragile folk ballads. They are extremely simple, user-friendly, and functional, designed for cutting a rug and high-energy clapback. Many will say that, compared to Dua Lipa, Taylor Swift writes more self-confessed and emotionally vulnerable lyrics with complex stories. It seems like Lipa is more interested in speaking about the world around her than about herself.

While her songwriting spins around common matters of the heart, her other activities are aimed at outer issues. In her student days, she ran a teenage blog called Dua Daily. Now, besides social media, she has the website Service95 with a lot of editorial material and her own podcast, Dua Lipa: At Your Service, where she speaks with industry heavyweights like Tim Cook or Pedro Almodóvar. However, the lack of superbly calibrated lines and storytelling prowess in her economical writing is leveled out by sleek and flawless production, killer hooks, and overall firecracking dynamics with melodically nuanced beats that make you play the game “Guess an inspiration in 10 sec” and shake your bones as well. 

Rephrasing PinkPantheress’s famous statement, “I don’t care about the beats, I care about the pen,” we can surely say that her team v.v. cares a lot. Parker was ready for a big pop from the start. While his music was always considered nerdy psychedelic stuff for well-read vinyl collectors, it has had great mainstream potential from the beginning. As with the White Stripes in their time, Tame Impala eventually became one of the most respected indie projects among a broad audience. Just listen to “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” or “Breathe Deeper”. Here, we could throw in a curveball about how disco influenced psychedelic music during the late 1970s and early 1980s and how it all aligns with Dua Lipa’s new sonics, but we won’t.

As the Radical Optimism opener suggests, “This could be the end of an era.” “The album is different — it’s still pop, but it’s different sonically,” Dua Lipa told Variety. Returning to that passerby who helped us kickstart this article, it’s funny that he wasn’t even sure if “the real person” was standing before him, which only emphasizes the changes she has undergone from the release of her first album until now. The same changes, optimistic changes if I may, are now inevitable for both the indie and pop music industries, thanks to Radical Optimism.

RATING 8 / 10