British pop singer Charli XCX mixes authentically human emotion with nonhuman, digital sounds to electrifying success on her latest album “Charli.” The project sees Charli return to her winning formula of leading with collaboration and boundary-pushing electronic pop; the singer is an artist and a curator of the future of pop music, and both of these dimensions manifest themselves on the album.
Throughout the album, Charli switches back and forth between futuristic, industrial beats and production, almost making the lyrics unintelligible, and personal confessions unhidden by less-manipulated production.
No song captures the exciting direction of Charli XCX’s fearless venture into industrial production that is nearly unheard of in pop music like “Click,” featuring longtime collaborators Kim Petras and Tommy Cash.
A relatively simple, undulating beat runs behind Charli’s lighthearted, boastful lyrics until becoming engulfed by immersive, grinding crescendos. As the song progresses, the static and chaos increase, adding to the drama of the song before returning to its airy start. However, the last 30 seconds then dive into a grating rendition of the beat that incites a visceral, full-body reaction, exemplifying Charli’s versatility and daring artistry.
Moments like this build on the strongest parts of her 2017 mixtape “Pop 2” and continue to pioneer what is possible to include in modern pop music. By taking her music to such an inorganic extreme, though, Charli ends up challenging the physical limits of what any music can sound like and transcending her usual genre.
However, the distinct sound of her most bold tracks causes the others to pale in comparison, dragging down the album’s value as a whole. With such intense highs, the comedown becomes even more difficult and apparent.
“Warm,” a track featuring pop rock trio HAIM, presents a cool and glossy pop song that fits into Charli’s discography but lacks impact compared to other, more innovative tracks. Its placement on the album right after the experimental and groundbreaking outro on “Click” sounds disjointed and lends itself to the idea that there are two different versions of Charli in “Charli” — one remaining much safer, reserved and ultimately less appealing than the other.
“1999” and “2099,” both featuring Australian pop star Troye Sivan, capture this frustrating and confusing duality perfectly. The titles insinuate that the two songs are set 100 years apart, and they even sound as if they were made in different centuries.
While “1999,” released last October, is a nostalgic and carefree song about missing childhood that does not take many musical risks, “2099” is a futuristic and artistically confident track that overlays booming percussion with warped digital melodies.
No matter which song is better than the other, the sheer difference between the two embodies the key dissonance on the album that keeps it from being an all-around gem, as neither creative vision guides the album.
Although “Pop 2” consisted almost entirely of collaborations, Charli XCX attempts to add a handful of solo tracks onto “Charli” with limited success. It is not that the songs themselves are bad, but when compared to the rest of the album they lack impact, highlighting her curatorial taste at the expense of showcasing her own talent.
Even though many of the solo songs struggle to keep up with Charli’s strength as a collaborator, “Thoughts” proves that she still has an individual voice that can stand on its own. The song features wistful production reminiscent of British electronic composer Anna Meredith, and Charli complements this sweeping, dramatic backing track with vulnerable and intimate lyrics.
Still, “Charli” redeems any weak spots with the stellar collaborations that bring together an eclectic range of artists and create infectious chemistry, and “Shake It,” featuring New Orleans bounce music icon Big Freedia, independent rapper CupcakKe, club darling Brooke Candy and Brazilian superstar Pabllo Vittar, represents this strength.
Much like “I Got It,” a song off “Pop 2” that featured three out of the four collaborators from “Shake It,” one simple lyrical phrase provides the base to which each artist adds their own flair. Big Freedia and CupcakKe raise the raw energy with their verses while Candy and Vittar further push the track.
The best collaborations like “Shake It” do not fear experimental production just because of the big names on the track: CupcakKe’s verse transitions from a whisper to a ferocious delivery, Charli’s chorus at times sounds like it is being played underwater and Vittar’s vocals are transformed on a robotic yet relentless Portuguese verse. This mashup of seemingly discordant sounds actually meshes seamlessly on the track to create a dynamic listening experience.
At no point does “Charli” ever feel like a step back for the artist, but it definitely has moments that feel as if not much ground has been made since her last release. Regardless, the album as a whole still takes pop music into previously uncharted territory and delivers a well-crafted vision of the future that transcends Charli XCX herself to include the innovators and artists that make the album so worthwhile in the first place.