Rating:It’s unusual for an international star to get their fame as a feature artist rather than from their own material, but that’s how British pop singer Charli XCX came into the public eye. Of her three biggest songs — “Boom Clap,” “I Love It,” and “Fancy” — only one is actually hers; while the others, credited to Icona Pop and Iggy Azalea respectively, helped catapult those stars into their own massive commercial success. In a way, that must be freeing for Charli, allowing her the space to experiment with solo material as she did on her second album, 2013’s True Romance. That record was an excellent clash of electropop, rock and punk ideas in the shell of catchy radio pop, a combination that worked wonderfully but didn’t grab public attention the way that “I Love It” and “Fancy” had. Charli seemed doomed to become another sidelined pop artist a bit too weird for mass consumption. Undaunted, she made some adjustments to her sound, and that’s how we came to have her third album Sucker.
Sucker has a lot of moments unusual for pop music: the relentless drums on “London Queen,” the brash, profanity-laden battle-cry of the title track, the distorted guitars lining “Breaking Up,” “Gold Coins” and half a dozen other songs. These are mostly cursory flourishes though, all in service of bright, elegant pop songs with big choruses and surefire melodies, the kind that Charli missed out on with True Romance. Sucker continues in the rock-infused trajectory of her second album, but those elements have been purified and sapped of much of their intensity. The singer retains a unique sound, but it’s been neutralized. The punk energy of “London Queen,” for instance, doesn’t stop it from sounding like a One Direction song. Sucker is Charli XCX’s move into complete accessibility and conventionality.
The dueling personalities of the ambitious pop starlet and the genre-bending rebel come into play a lot on the album, so much so that it seems to have an identity crisis. Charli appears to want Sucker to revolve around themes of female liberation and independence, but while “Sucker” begins the album with a cry of both spirited empowerment and spunky impudence (“You said you wanna bang?/ Well, fuck you, sucker”), it isn’t long before she dives into trite, toothless schoolgirl rebellion, singing “I don’t want to go to school/ I just want to break the rules” on the very next track. It goes even further with songs like album closer “Need Ur Love,” which, rather than distance itself from the cutesy, lovesick teenager schtick that Charli typically avoids, dives head-first into it: “I need your love/ I need it even when it hurts me.” Maybe it’s a lot to ask for a pop album to have a clear, organized ideology, but Sucker is all mixed signals. True Romance was a success because it had more than singalong hooks, earworm melodies and big, blustering production — it had an ethos. Sucker, in comparison, is shallow.
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a perfectly enjoyable pop record. Even if the sharper edges have been dulled to accommodate a broadening audience, Charli’s particular brand of energetic, empowering party anthems are still a welcome presence in today’s increasingly postmodern pop world. Sucker is a remarkably refined album, with no song longer than four-minutes and no filler to speak of. “Boom Clap,” “Doing It” and “Famous” are pure, simple pop bliss, and tracks like “Need Ur Love” share enough musically with her past work that they give hope for more varied future efforts. If Sucker doesn’t confirm Charli as the left-field pop auteur that True Romance hinted at, it at least confirms her as a world-class hitmaker. Surely she’s happy with that.