Ever since Charli XCX dived into the sickly sweet, avant-garde world of PC Music – releasing an EP produced by SOPHIE, making A. G. Cook her ‘creative director’ – it was clear that her label were less than thrilled with this turn of events. While mixtape after mixtape was released to critical acclaim, there remained a growing sense that Asylum were waiting for her to get over a phase. Now Charli has arrived, her first studio album in five years, and it has a surprising degree of sonic consistency for a record long anticipated to be an awkward compromise.
The album opens with Next Level Charli featuring pretty synths and barked verses that all get cut off at the end, an energising and promising start. This is followed by a brilliant duet with Christine And The Queens, Gone, which plays exquisitely to both of their strengths with a catchy hook and infectious production. The album continues in this vein with powerballad Cross You Out and the peppy nostalgia trip 1999, maintaining a balance between Charli’s stylistic inclinations and radio-friendly songcraft. Where it starts feeling botched is on Blame It On Your Love: a lyrical idea already heard on her mixtape Pop 2 is repackaged to sound lifeless and bland, while Lizzo’s verse feels decidedly tacked on.
The most sonically fascinating moments are on Click and Shake It, posse cuts featuring a whole host of more regular Charli collaborators. The former bangs like otherworldly trap with multiple beat switches and a warped, distorted outro, while the latter is the closest thing we have to Busta Rhymes’ Touch It reworked by Otto Von Schirach. In the mix here are also a handful of solo Charli tracks, including the Julia Michaels-esque White Mercedes as well as Official with its lyrics about a developing relationship (“I remember our first date, no chocolate and no bouquet / but the way that you kissed me, these are the things that could make us official”) that whet the appetite for more.
Charli is not the perfect pop album, nor is it a fully developed manifesto for where pop could go, but it is a collection of enjoyable, interesting tracks that don’t sound completely alien, but also don’t sound like anyone involved is selling out. Whether Charli herself is entirely happy with this arrangement remains to be seen, but it could’ve gone a lot worse.