Premature Evaluation: Charli XCX Charli
A few weeks ago, Charli XCX had a bit of a rough time. She took to social media to air out her feelings. “Sometimes I just want to quit everything,” she wrote in an Instagram post. “Sometimes I wish I was only a songwriter, not an artist — so I could give my songs to other artists to sing. And then maybe more people would hear them and connect with them. I don’t really understand how music works, nor do I really care to but sometimes I think I was born in the wrong era.”
It was a distinct change from Charli’s usual over-the-top brags — “honestly, i’m fucking iconic” and “ i’m kinda a chart flop but honestly lol if u think i care” — but a note like that shows why it’s so easy to root for Charli. It’s earnest and self-effacing; it’s an acknowledgement that any day can be hard, even when you’re a pop star with a legion of adoring fans.
That’s the battle at the center of Charli, her third full-length album, which alternates between bouts of intense confidence and crippling doubt. There are songs that act as mechanized pump-ups, that have you feeling like the coolest person in the club, and then there are songs that are all about feeling isolated and misunderstood, about not fitting in and not trusting your own mind to guide you through the bad times.
Charli XCX is used to being on the periphery of the pop landscape. It’s always informed her music, an antagonism against the status quo that causes her to push boundaries. Since Charlotte Aitchison broke through at the start of the decade, her career has been a roller coaster of delayed release and gratifying payoff. Somehow after all these years, she’s still on the outside looking in. While songs that she’s co-written have gone on to become massive commercial hits, her mainline music has remained too out-there to capture the masses. (The exception being “Boom Clap,” a Top 10 hit whose popularity was helpfully fueled by The Fault In Our Stars.)
That’s led to some zig-zags in Charli’s career since her last proper full-length album, Sucker, came out back in 2014, but since she first linked up with the PC Music crew in 2016 on the Vroom Vroom EP, it’s like she’s finally found kindred spirits in pop, a group of weirdos that want to fuck with expectations just as much as she does. Her two 2017 mixtapes, Number 1 Angel and Pop 2, recalibrated Charli, letting Charli just be Charli. The eponymous title of her new album supports this claim: Charli is her truest self on these songs, all the messiness and raucous glee left intact.
Structurally, there’s little differentiating Charli from that pair of mixtapes. There are a ton of guest features from some of the biggest and brightest names in pop — Christine And The Queens, HAIM, Troye Sivan, Lizzo, Kim Petras, CupcakKe, Yaeji, Clairo. It’s executive produced by PC Music spearhead A. G. Cook, Charli’s partner-in-crime in deliciously twisted pop music. Though SOPHIE didn’t have a hand in this specific set of songs, it’s clear that “Vroom Vroom” is a benchmark for Charli; she namechecks that SOPHIE-produced track a few times throughout the album, a blueprint for the kind of maximalist chaos that Charli wants to make.
Across the board, Charli just sounds so, so cool. It’s all shattered glass beats, robotic wails, ear-popping melodies. There are individual moments and whole songs that are absolutely breathtaking: the chainsaw-bending outro of “Click,” the quivering modulation on “Shake It,” where Charli’s voice is manipulated in a dozen different ways to sound like sharp knives, pools of water, breathy gasps trying to cling for life. There’s “Next Level Charli,” which opens the album in a dizzying and effervescent flex; “2099” closes, stretching Charli’s pop vision like taffy: “Got visions, levels, they don’t get me/ Quiet, no discussion, please hush.”
And Charli is more thematically cohesive than either Number 1 Angel or Pop 2, even though they share a similar sonic template. It feels like there’s a central narrative to Charli: Its title and bear-it-all cover art suggests that this is a window into the interior world of Charli XCX, and that world seems volatile and fun and sometimes supremely alienating. Charli is an album full of sad bangers, antisocial pop music about pushing everyone away while still desperately searching for a connection.
There’s a stretch of tracks in the middle of the album without any featured guests that is just sublime, as unvarnished and open as Charli has ever been on an album. “Thoughts” is transcendent, a song about taking too many pills, drowning yourself in work and partying that feels like work, surrounding yourself with people — including people you’re not sure you can trust — just so you’re not alone. “Did I lose it all? Did I fuck it up?” Charli asks on the track. “Are my friends really friends now? Are they all far gone?”
There’s a lot of heartbreak on Charli, a lot of songs that are clearly trying to work through a difficult relationship. Whether it’s because she’s traveling around the world and has no time to truly connect or because she feels emotionally unavailable, Charli turns these moments of unsurety into crystallized pop songs. On “White Mercedes,” she sings about not feeling good enough for a partner (“I don’t deserve you/ I don’t deserve your love”); “Silver Cross” is about a rush of self-destructive passion (“Feel like I would jump off buildings for you”). My favorite is the plinking and sweet “Official,” where she settles down into a relationship long enough to trust the other person: “You know the words to my mistakes, you understand because you made them too.”
Charli really shines on those songs when she’s all alone. Those songs feel like they’re operating in their own little bubble, separate from the rest of an album that sounds big and bold and brash. But those two disparate tones are part of the point, the emotional whiplash of what it’s like to be Charli XCX. “I hate the silence/ That’s why the music’s always loud/ So many problems/ I try to drown them out,” she sings on one track.
Charli surrounds herself with friends and collaborators in an effort to cover up the inner darkness, stave off her loneliness by creating a community of people who just want to be understood too. “Click” is all about that, a play on words about when you’re with your clique and you just click. It’s the sort of track that only Charli could pull off, silly and serious at the same time, making the 30 seconds before you pull up to a party sound like the end of the world.
When she connects with her collaborators on common ground, it’s magical. “Gone” is still one of Charli’s best songs, invigorating and affirming in its union of two people who are sick of being around everyone. “I feel so unstable/ Fucking hate these people/ How they making me feel lately,” they both shout, commiserating over feeling overstimulated and under-appreciated.
It’s powerful to find that group of outsiders that make you feel like an insider, and on Charli she’s finally found them. If, as Charli put it, she was truly “born in the wrong era,” then thankfully at least she’s here with us, figuring it out together. Charli is the pinnacle of this sound for Charli, and if her past transformations are anything to go by, the next era of Charli will also be next level.
Charli is out 9/13 via Asylum/Atlantic.