Ever since her boundary-breaking 2016 EP, Vroom Vroom, Charli XCX has been a songwriter to watch. She’s been on a crusade to redefine pop with the help of PC Music founder A. G. Cook – and in the process, redefine who Charli XCX can be. The result is Charli, an album which paints a dazzlingly multifaceted portrait of the 27-year-old. It’s music that steers the works of Charli XCX into an exciting future ahead, refusing to compromise whilst doing so.
Charli shines in its moments of bliss, where the collaborators are well-chosen and the songs are, simply put, a lot of fun. ‘Blame It On Your Love’ sees guest Lizzo delivering an excellent rap to accompany the summer-ready track. ‘1999’ also has Charli playing off Troye Sivan’s softer vocals and a killer bassline as they both indulge in their mutual love for the 90s. Its successor, ‘2099’ takes a huge risk in its instrumentation, but it pays off as the song pivots from booming atmospheres to a gorgeously delicate section, ending on a wild breakdown.
Cuts like ‘Click’ use ridiculously crazy beats to support the energy of guests Kim Petras and Tommy Cash, who sustain the swagger of the track with ease. Charli uses the various lexical connections of ‘click’ to provide a braggadocious grandeur to the track in her signature gravelly vocals – something similar to tracks like ‘XXXTC’ and ‘I Got It’. ‘Gone’ also makes excellent use of Christine and the Queens, whose syncopated style aligns well with Charli’s. It’s bold in its artistic choices: the breakdown is atypically distorted for a single, but it proves why the record is so exciting to listen to.
The more emotional points in the album are also well-written, framing love and heartbreak in an inventive musical setting. A specific quartet of songs come to mind, starting with ‘White Mercedes’. It’s a song that reinvents the pop ballad through its titular metaphor, delicate guitar line and strangely auto-tuned vocals. The way that Charli builds to the chorus is breathtaking – you literally hold your breath as she admits, “All I know is I don’t deserve you”. ‘Silver Cross’ is more up-tempo, and the racing synths combined with the musician’s delectable melody makes for a fun listen. ‘I Don’t Wanna Know’ mirrors ‘White Mercedes’ in its stripped-back instrumentation, and the smoky reverb surrounding her voice creates the perfect moody atmosphere. This quartet is rounded off with ‘Official’, which uses a minimalist approach to accompany the singer’s vulnerable admission of love. The twinkling background arpeggios lend the song some warmth, but her expressive vocals prevent the song from being too cloying. The intelligent writing in this quartet shows how pop can be sincere whilst being forward-thinking in its production.
Other songs on the album, however, aren’t as fully developed as one would hope. ‘Warm’ featuring HAIM is a beautifully subdued track, but it doesn’t quite suit the Los Angeles trio’s vocals. ‘Shake It’ is similarly burdened by its guests; with Big Freedia, CupcakKe, Brooke Candy and Pablo Vittar all making appearances, the song drags on. However ‘February 2017’ featuring Clairo and Yaeji suffers the opposite problem as it is too short, doing a disservice to the interesting musical ideas that it cycles through.
Despite minor structural issues, Charli is an album that turns pop on its head – and for good reason, too. It’s clear that Charli XCX is a songwriter who is willing to take risks and make striking artistic decisions. She’s unafraid to go where pop hasn’t gone, and it’s an attitude sorely needed in an industry that remains conflicted between following trends and individuality.
Charli is released on 13 September 2019 via Asylum/Atlantic Records.