Charli shies away from extremes.
Charli XCX’s new album is as much of a radio-pandering, streaming-finessing pop potboiler as a pastiche of one, or a parody of one, or an attempt to push the boundaries of one. Anyone can recognize it as the “album” she has to put out to maintain her pop bona fides before she can indulge her real whims on her “mixtapes.” The album is too long, there’s filler, there are songs that feel like naked grabs at pop radio airplay. But Charli’s long made a living off kidding the pop machine, and you can envision her mischievous smile as she sneaks her bizarre Estonian friend Tommy Cash onto posse cut “Click,” or mirrors the hacky Troye Sivan collab “1999” with a better, weirder song late in the album (also with Sivan) whose title skips ahead a hundred years.
Charli, likely titled in tribute to her idol’s own third album, Britney, is the biggest platform yet for the direction the British pop star’s been pursuing since 2016’s Vroom Vroom with Sophie. She’s the patron saint of hyperreal robo-pop, a chart-wise arm of the music her trusty producer A.G. Cook perfected with the PC Music label. Her knack for pop songwriting is well-established, but she subverts it by filtering classic chord progressions through a glass, darkly. She throws as much shit on her voice as she can (“Gone,” “Silver Cross,” “Shake It”) until she sounds as much like a person as a sample. That latter track feels like an experiment as to how far a pop song can retreat inward; even CupcakKe, a rapper not exactly known for lowering her voice, whispers here.
I complained of her last mixtape, 2017’s Pop 2, that the fembot sheen muted her emotions and kept her songs from achieving the grand emotional sweep we want from other cult pop stars like Robyn or Carly Rae Jepsen. This is not true here. I’ve never heard a non-folk punk album use the phrases “fuck up” and “fucked up” as often as Charli does here. This means intoxication (pill use is mentioned alarmingly often) and making mistakes (as on the chorus of Pop 2’s “Blame It on Your Love,” remade from spiky digital trash heap to late-night Lyft banger). The song most of the kids will connect with is “Gone,” featuring Héloïse Letissier of Christine and the Queens, which deals with the paralyzing anxiety of going to a crowded place and not wanting to be there.
But the album’s main leap forward is to crack her façade. She’s still one of our more reserved pop stars, and there are no moments of grand emotional bombast on the scale of Robyn bellowing she’ll never be brokenhearted ever again. Charli shies away from extremes, its emotions sharply drawn but never devastating, its beats playfully abrasive but only occasionally mind-bending. You can get a pretty good sense of the singer’s strengths here, but this is far from the deep end. Maybe that’s what identifies it as a proper “album,” and it’s one of the better albums from a major chart artist so far this year. But it’s time for Charli XCX to get her hands dirty again in the mixtape abyss.