Charlotte Aitchison has come a long way from Iggy Azalea’s 'Fancy'.
It’s hard to believe it’s been five years since that song was everywhere - and equally as much time since Charli XCX has released a full studio album. While she’s kept us quite a bit satiated in between with two different mixtapes and her 'Vroom Vroom' EP, the much-anticipated release of Charli finally looms ahead.
Out now via Asylum/Atlantic, 'Charli' sees producer A.G. Cook (of PC Music - known for pushing the limits of pop to sickly-sweet extremes) and Charli teaming up for yet a third project together— one that strikes an artful, masterful balance between too much... and much too much.
Charli is certainly one of the most daring works we’ve seen from her, but it’s not the first time we’ve seen her go this route. You may recall her 2016 EP, 'Vroom Vroom' - an angular, bubbly ode to everything pop could be - that turned heads simply because it was so out of left-field.
Charli doesn’t quite hit the level of avant-garde that did her 'Vroom Vroom' EP, which was co-produced by PC Music-affiliated SOPHIE, but it’s still a bold experimentation that feels like just the right balance of her. It veers almost 180-degrees away from the marketable poppiness that underpinned her earlier work - Charli is pointedly caustic and uncommercial for the sake of being so.
The album starts off strong with its opening track, 'Next Level Charli', which queues us in that we’re in for a ride. Reminiscent of a high-speed chase through a California highway, it’s a bold statement, but one that’s lived up to: Charli has surely grasped the reigns of her music and risen to the next level, taking our eardrums with her.
Indeed, the sickly-sweet, almost grating sound of an A.G. Cook-produced creation looms large on 'Charli' - precisely on 'Click', 'Shake It', and the beaming, 8-bit-influenced, 'Silver Cross' - throwing abrasive synths and chaotic bass lines in with glossy keyboards and lawless auras in a way that only Charli and her PC Music counterparts could.
While nothing on 'Charli' reaches the absolute absurdity of some of the other tracks released by those involved with PC Music, it still far overhangs the line of what is “mainstream” pop, especially for such a well-known artist.
Production, while stellar in quality, is intense, and most every song is carried by synths that quickly build in grandiosity and drop away at the same speed. Songs forge ahead with an almost scary determination, at times sounding like robots hard at work.
'Click' (ft. Kim Petras and Tommy Cash) is the worst offender, striking our ears with strange rhythmic switch-ups and a variety of unexpected twists and turns.
Lyrically, there isn’t much wrong - with several references to the high life and always being on the go, you’d wonder if Charli ever takes a break - but sonically, it’s brazen. Unfortunately, Tommy Cash’s verse takes the song to new lows, with vocals that feel even more slapdash against such a backdrop.
'Shake It' is the album’s second most astonishing track - and also the most feature-heavy, with past collaborators CupcakKe, Brooke Candy, and Pablo Vittar seemingly returning for 'I Got It' Round Two - plunging in with an intro unlike anything I’ve heard before.
Thankfully, though, there are some quiet, precious moments amongst the chaos. Together, 'Official' and 'I Don’t Wanna Know' - conveniently placed back to back - are a refreshing island of vulnerability in a sea of computerized noise, the former a sweet song about finally making things official with a partner.
And the soft, unguarded 'I Don’t Wanna Know' so dreamily coasts through the chorus line, the gentle synths elevating Charli’s voice to new heights as piano-like chords shine down like rays of warm light.
The more upbeat 'Gone' (ft. Christine & The Queens)' is another scintillating cut, as well as the banging, club-ready 'Silver Cross', both bound to be excellent live. The album wavers a bit with 'Shake It' - a disorienting, inventive song that relies on zippy synths, jarring effects, and a bloated list of features - but finds its way again with her, Clairo, and Yaeji’s 'February 2017'.
Where Charli’s earlier projects exhibited a keen feel for marketability and mass appeal, Charli as a whole makes a bid for discordant beauty. While the flow of the record could use some work - jarring switches from feature-heavy, chaotic songs to softer lyrical cuts end up making it sound a bit more choppy than it should - the energy of the album is consistent throughout, and you can tell it’s her most excited project yet.
'Charli' is no doubt an album of too many features and too many parts, but it somehow all fits together in a way that allows her penchant for unconventional songwriting and her ear for an exciting melody to work in concert, creating a project better than most anything she’s done in the past.
If we were to place this comparison directly onto the album itself, the pair of singles '1999' (ft. Troye Sivan) and '2099' - also featuring Troye Sivan - would be the best to mirror Charli’s musical growth over a ten-year period.
Since signing her first record contract at 18 - which was preceded by four-odd years of releasing music independently on MySpace - her sound has picked up and dropped off a wide array of genre interests, but never has it felt so carefree.
She’s a product of a generation that saw technology and music surge forward hand-in-hand, and, strangely enough, this seems a roundabout way of expressing that. Charli XCX does everything left-of-center, and amid the chaos that is and continues to be the evolving music industry, her left-field tendencies have become as dependable of a base as is a pillar.
Whereas at times bordering on abrasive to unseasoned ears, Charli’s work can appeal to pop-lovers of all stripes. As we look to the future, it seems we always can count on her to bring something unafraid to the table, and while that’s not too rare anymore, it’s still quite refreshing.
Words: Valerie Magan
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