Album review: Charli XCX – Charli

John Preston

South London based music obsessive with strong opinions about most things. Doubts Madonna has another good record in her but would love more than anything to be proved wrong.
John Preston

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Outlier Charli XCX has made an undeniable impression on contemporary music. Her now trademark autotune and ongoing persistence with PC music can be heard in every week’s batch of new releases ranging from an arena established, major artist to the current bedroom-based wanna be freak.

So far though Charli XCX, aka Charlotte Aitchison, is not a household name and her reluctance to make things easier for herself in an attempt to remedy this is industry acknowledged. Her last two full-length releases were marketed as mix tapes which meant that they were easier, and quicker, to release than a record-company approved album.

Both Number 1 Angel and Pop 2 were admired for taking risks and were big, noisy and slyly anarchic pop albums at a time when pop had become as beige and suburban in its outlook as Ed and Adele’s supposed matey relatability. This is only Aitchison’s third album proper and this change in tactics seems important – is Charli the record that will enable her to cross over fully to become pop royalty?

Like Pop 2, Charli is packed with features and almost all of these were heard before the album came out. The difference is that amongst Aitchison’s usual queer crew of collaborators (Kim Petras, Brooke Candy and Pabllo Vittar all return) there are also bigger, blockbuster names involved. Lizzo, Christine and the Queens, and, most surprisingly, HAIM all bring their star power.

‘Gone’, the duet with Letissier, has an undeniable twitchy energy which excitingly flickers on and off manically during its last minute but doesn’t quite hit as hard as it wants to melodically. The Lizzo feature, meanwhile, is built around a depressingly predicable EDM drop.

HAIM sound wonderfully misplaced and oddly recognisable still on highlight hot-cold, trop-bop of ‘Warm’. ‘Shake It’ is a genuinely bizarre, queer roll-call of rappers that pushes Charli to the sidelines and uses watery PC effects that deceptively betray the audacious thrust of the song’s verses, particularly that of Big Freedia. A.G. Cook oversees production again and on the clanking grind of ‘Click’’s outro reaffirms his mastery of making electronic music sound simultaneously violent and saccharine, matched only by PC’s overload, ‘SOPHIE’.

The sequencing of this record forces all of the solo tracks together in the middle of the record and, in a way that feels intentional, focuses you to acknowledge the flip side of partying and the pain that this sometimes tries to hide. This plays out with an emotional intensity that Aitchison has rarely allowed herself to display so boldly before.

The most conventionally structured and commercially sounding track on the record is the mid-tempo, finger clicking sway of ‘White Mercedes’. Sounding like a straight-up stadium anthem it does the job extremely well but the spurting synths of the brilliantly paranoid ‘Thoughts’ and the beautifully twinkling and romantic ‘Official are more compelling and in keeping with Aitchison’s cock-eyed aesthetic.

Yaeji’s final verse of ‘February 2017’ is gently sung in Korean. It’s followed by the ornately metallic and spaciously zooming ‘2099’ which sees XCX and Troye Sivan blast into unknown galaxies and is the superior counterpart to the other Sivan duet featured here, ‘1999’.

Charli feels like a genuine labour of love for the singer: it’s an ambitious, brave and determined record and establishes the Charli XCX manifesto as a cohesive and persuasive pop movement.

Will it be the album that crosses over and establishes Aitchison as a global pop-star? Out of everything here, ‘White Mercedes’ could hit big but isn’t an accurate representative of the album as a whole. So whilst her fan base will continue to grow certainly, Aitchison’s brand of pop still seems too odd to infiltrate prime time proper.

Charli XCX is a visionary though and her constant refusal to compromise and smooth away the alien edges makes her the biggest star by far in her own beguiling universe.