Charli XCX is not going to be anyone’s fucking pop music bridesmaid anymore. It’s not happening. Forget it. Over the past two years, Charli has helped give global, career-defining hits to Icona Pop (“I Love It,” co-wrote it, guide vocals still very much audible on the final song) and Iggy Azalea (“Fancy,” wrote and sung the best-thing-about-the-song chorus and bridge). At this point, she could very easily slip into that Ryan Tedder behind-the-scenes song-doctor role. But she is not going to let that happen for one fucking second. True Romance, her great year-and-a-half-old album, was an album full of strong pop songs, but those songs were couched in floaty, gothy synthpop signifiers. It was an indie festival-pop album, basically. She wasn’t going to make another of those. Talking to NME over the summer, Charli said, “I’m not making a hipster record.” No shit. Instead, she’s made a big and brash and colorful and impossible-to-ignore pop album, an album that slams you in the face with hook after hook, an impossible album to ignore. And on its own bold, mercenary terms, Sucker is a hell of an album.
Sucker is so unrelenting, so single-minded in its efforts to keep you as entertained as possible at every second, that its sense of fun can feel weirdly oppressive at times. It’s an Andrew W.K. album, if AWK had been a pretty London-suburbs girl instead of a big sweaty Michigan bruiser, and if he’d been into the Go-Gos and early Madonna instead of Slayer and Morbid Angel. Just like I Get Wet, it gives off that sense that every moment on the album has been painstakingly worked-over, that every last possible hook has been crammed in somewhere. Even a relatively slow and emotive song like the album-closing “Need Ur Love” still has a big stomping glam-rock beat and a yelping backing vocals and a twanging garage-rock guitar riff and hammering new-wave keyboards. The whole album is bright and loud and compressed as possible. There’s nothing tasteful about it, and there’s no moment when you get a chance to breathe or relax. On a song like “London Queen,” the whole thing whirls to pieces. There’s too much happening, and the cartoonish oi oi ois and JFK name-drops and pinpoint-accurate synth-squelches and marauding jackhammer drums overwhelm more than they entertain. But when all these elements come together, which they usually do, Sucker can be magical.
The reason Sucker has a chance to be the monster that it is, of course, is “Boom Clap,” which could’ve been a soundtrack throwaway and which turned out to be Charli’s first real solo hit. “Boom Clap” is a love song that sounds like a crush song, dizzily throwing itself into its chant-along chorus and dedicating itself to the actual physiological heart-rate changes, the way your body knows when you feel something. Even that song, though, might not be as ferociously catchy as the delinquent anthem “Break The Rules” — a song my kids heard once, weeks ago, and won’t stop singing. (I’ve had to have a lot of “Nooooo, we don’t break the rules, do we?” conversations with my two-year-old.) “Breaking Up” is a ridiculously joyous kissoff, the rare breakup song where you can tell that the singer knows she’s going to be better off when this stupid fucking relationship is done: “I hate your friends and your family, too! / So breaking up is easy to do!” The title track throws subliminal darts at Dr. Luke, which is about a million times more interesting than getting Dr. Luke to co-produce a couple of singles. “Die Tonight” is one of those magical my-friends-are-the-only-thing-that-matters devotional hymns, with gang-chant lyrics about having the magic in your veins and going hard with all your friends. (For a while, I thought the “Rolling Stone’s on the phone” line was a hey-cool-I’m-famous humblebrag before I figured out that Charli and her friends are probably just listening to the Rolling Stones on a smartphone.) These songs have the same gigantic, world-conquering choruses that Charli was writing on True Romance, but the music is bigger and juicier, piling riffy horny guitar and whizzing computer-sound and bloodthirsty-robot drums into towering, ungainly beasts. Musically, the reminds me of a late-’90s moment when Britpop and bubblegum and punk and rave threatened to become some ferocious hybrid beast: Shampoo, Republica, maybe that second Elastica album where they tried to go electroclash. And when these songs hit you right, surrender is the only option.
But the weird thing about this naked, unashamed pop-stardom ploy is that it might not work out. For one thing, Charli’s label is giving her the Sky Ferreira memorial “let’s try releasing this thing and not telling anyone” treatment, throwing it out at the end of the year without fully throwing the starmaking machinery behind it. For another, the young pop stars who have been breaking through lately have been the tasteful, quiet, retiring types, your Sam Smiths and your Hoziers. Charli XCX is not that. Your local lite rock station wants none of her. Sucker sounds the way I imagine my parents, big Joan Baez fans, think all pop music sounds: Loud and brash and silly and fully computerized and allergic to anyone’s idea of subtlety. Sucker is a maximal blast, and it’s out of step with the world. That’s what’s great about it. Every once in a while, a pop music album should come along and kick you in the dick. Lord willing, Sucker will get a chance to kick as many dicks as possible.
Other albums of note out this week:
• D’Angelo And The Vanguard’s impossibly long-awaited spell-weaver Black Messiah.
• Nicki Minaj’s pop-rap breakup opus The Pinkprint.
• Jonny Greenwood’s soundtrack for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice.
• Chief Keef’s strange, self-released Nobody.
• Baths side project Geotic’s voice-and-guitars experiment Sunset Mountain.
• The Coldplay-featuring Unbroken soundtrack.
• YG’s Blame It On The Streets mini-album.
• Laughing Fingers’ Two EPs.