Charlie Puth (Finally) Finds His Voice

Charlie Puth (Finally) Finds His Voice

In 2011, when Charlie Puth was a sophomore at Berklee College Of Music, he was flown out to Los Angeles and plopped down on the Ellen Show. Up until then, Puth had been actively trying to replicate Justin Bieber’s path to stardom by uploading songs to YouTube, which eventually led to his winning a Perez Hilton-sponsored contest called Can You Sing? After seeing his cover of Adele’s “Someone Like You” (which he performed with Emily Luther), DeGeneres decided to sign both of them to her (now-defunct) label, eleveneleven, and, in subsequent years, bombard her audience with reminders that she discovered him.

Now, unlike fellow eleveneleven signee Greyson Chance, Puth has not disowned Degeneres. He’s no longer on eleveneleven, which doesn’t exist anymore. (He says they “ghosted” him.) He has dutifully appeared on the final season of Ellen to promote his third album, CHARLIE, and given the disgraced talk show host one more opportunity to imply that he owes his entire career to her. “People describe Ellen as rude,” he told Rolling Stone. “I’ve never experienced that. Maybe she likes me.”

Whatever the circumstances, it’s a net positive that Puth has been given the opportunity to map out a fresh start with CHARLIE. Regardless of his vocal ability, considerable fan base, and production talent (he majored in music production and engineering at Berklee), I do get the sense that, critically, he’s never been taken seriously. Maybe it’s because he once requested lunch by telling his driver I’m hungies!” Maybe it’s because he memorably icked the Internet out by furiously making out with Meghan Trainor onstage at the 2015 American Music Awards. Maybe it’s because Metacritic rightly rates his syrupy 2016 debut album Nine Track Mind as one of the worst-reviewed albums of all time. (2018 follow-up Voicenotes fared better.) Maybe it’s because his earliest singles, such as “Marvin Gaye,” were mawkish attempts at modernizing classic pop. Unlike the late Motown legend, I feel confident in my assertion that early-career Charlie Puth made absolutely nobody feel aroused.

Between his chronic foot-in-mouth disease and boner-killing “seduction” singles, Puth has historically been an easy target. And I haven’t even mentioned the masturbating-to-Maroon 5 admission, followed by the recent TMI bomb that he’s very horny. Like, all-the-time horny. Truthfully, until now I’ve written Puth off as a cringe theater kid. A famous theater kid with talent, yes. But cringe nonetheless. Do you remember when Nick Jonas started promoting his solo career with thirst-trap shirtless pics, thus separating himself from his promise-ring past? Well, that was a successful PR move. Puth could never.

Puth is working overtime to hit refresh on CHARLIE. Maybe he still isn’t rising to the level of a Nick Jonas shirtless thirst trap, but the guy is attempting some honest introspection. Case in point: While on his media tour, Puth told an anecdote in which Elton John apparently told him the music he released in 2019 sucks. And if Sir Elton John is telling you your music sucks, it must really be time to rethink some things. John’s feedback inspired Puth to adopt a more truthful, from-the-heart lyrical stance — to stop writing music he thinks people want, and instead write his unadulterated truth. And so, Puth did just that. He documented CHARLIE’s recording process on TikTok, the ultimate authenticity platform (aside from BeReal). Instead of packing the room full of producers as on Nine Track Mind, Puth produced CHARLIE entirely by himself. Let me be the first to admit: It worked.

If you know my personal music taste, then you know that I will be the first to snark on Charlie Puth. But damn, CHARLIE is actually pretty good. It’s not good because Puth is inherently talented or an agile singer (though he is both those things); it’s good because you genuinely feel like you’re getting the real Puth — not the record-label marionette Puth, or the schlockey “Marvin Gaye” Puth, or the clean-cut baby-talking Puth. CHARLIE is just as pop-friendly as Puth’s previous work, but it’s much more well-rounded and human. By stripping away all contrivances, Puth becomes the artist he’s always wanted to be.

Across 12 tracks, Puth goes to some dark places as he processes a big breakup and a dissolution of a business relationship. “You took away a year of my fuckin’ life, and I can’t get it back no more,” he sings on the moody album opener “That’s Hilarious,” which gets balanced out with wry “ha ha ha”s on the chorus. Puth also shows off his considerable production chops on the self-referential “Charlie Be Quiet!,” which pushes and pulls with soft verses and a distortion-packed chorus.

In fact, if there is one word to describe the entire CHARLIE experience, it might be “balance.” For every melancholy moment, there is levity, whether that comes in the form of melody and song structure or Puth’s own Broadway-sprite persona. Those excitable tendencies are in fine form on the energetic synth adventure “Light Switch,” which bounces right into the Panic! At The Disco-esque “There’s A First Time For Everything.” (Beyond the P!ATD resemblance, Puth really ought to credit Blink-182 on “There’s A First Time For Everything,” because hoo boy do those verses owe a debt to “The Rock Show.”)

Puth takes it down a notch on the mid-tempo “Smells Like Me,” which thematically has a similar sentiment to Olivia Rodrigo’s “Deja Vu”; both singers wonder out loud to what extent they’ve been forgotten as their exes date other people: “And when you touch him, does it really feel the same?/ Or are you lyin’ there, thinkin’ about the way/ That it used to be?” He could have stood to bring some of that quiet to the percussive “I Don’t Think That I Like Her,” which wants to be a kiss-off anthem but instead just comes off as borderline 2000s-emo misogynistic: “I don’t think that I like her anymore (Yeah)/ Girls are all the same/ All they wanna do is break my heart, my heart.” I don’t think that I like gendered blanket statements.

Puth does himself a favor by teaming up with BTS’ Jung Kook on “Left And Right,” a stomping, singsong meditation on feeling haunted by an ex. Follow-up “Loser” sounds like Puth’s been listening to the Weeknd, but the ’80s synths and drum-machine rhythms don’t sound derivative. We could stand to lose the piano ballad “When You’re Sad I’m Sad,” though — I’ve decided Puth is at his best making upbeat pop bangers that balance honest sentiments while still leaning right into the cheese.

Puth is cheesy — there’s no getting around that fact. But on CHARLIE, he’s found a way to make the cheese work for him.

POP TEN

WILLOW – “curious/furious”
WILLOW showcases her ability to go from 0 to 100 as she seamlessly switches gears from Billie Eilish-warble to full-on shout-singing. The most impressive part is that she hardly seems to break a sweat. The cathartic, guitar-soloing “Curious/Furious” packs a full emotional spectrum into a tight three minutes, and it keeps building a case for WILLOW’s eventual pop-music takeover.

Lil Nas X – “STAR WALKIN’ (League of Legends Worlds Anthem)”
Technically, Lil Nas X’s “STAR WALKIN'” is an anthem for this year’s League Of Legends World Championship, which makes me want to go full Lucille Bluth “I don’t understand the question, and I won’t respond to it.” By itself though, the synth-driven “STAR WALKIN'” contains elements of the Weeknd’s After Hours new-wave shtick with Empire Of The Sun’s “Walking On A Dream” channeled through an epic fantasy video-game prism. Even if you — like me — glaze over at any discussion of online gaming, “STAR WALKIN'” is still worth a listen.

Kelsea Ballerini – “MUSCLE MEMORY”
Kelsea Ballerini’s ode to a tractor-beam physical connection has an easy, lived-in quality that matches “Muscle Memory”‘s subject matter. With its twanging lap steel and mid-tempo rhythm, “MUSCLE MEMORY” will no doubt soundtrack some Hallmark Channel romances about a high-strung CEO type reconnecting with an old flame in their hometown at Christmas, but that’s perfectly OK. Hallmark romances are popular for a reason, and Ballerini understood the assignment.

Maya Hawke – “Luna Moth”
With all this online talk of nepo babies, you almost don’t want Maya Hawke to be as talented at singing as she is on screen. But Hawke really understands how to best utilize her voice, which is raw, intimate, and vulnerable laid over a paired-down acoustic track. “Luna Moth” makes the listener feel like they’re legitimately getting to know Hawke — which is basically all fans want from their celebs, anyway.

Noah Cyrus – “I Just Want a Lover”
I’m admittedly a sucker for well-placed orchestral strings in a pop song, and that — among other things — is what Noah Cyrus brings to the table on the dramatic “I Just Want A Lover.” With her arresting alto, Cyrus rails against “the united hate of America” and “the narcissists [that] run at me/ With guns ablaze, no empathy, insanity” before telling us how she “just want(s) a lover who’s in love with me” and “not another liar makin’ love to me.” I can see how a genuine human connection would make living in the United States Of Chaos just a smidge easier to bear.

Muni Long – “Conversation”
Muni Long has the ’90s R&B market cornered on her just-released Public Displays Of Affection: The Album, and I couldn’t think of a better mood-setter than with the super-slinky opener “Conversation.”

Chloe Moriondo – “CDBaby <3"
Bedroom pop experimenter Chloe Moriondo channels her inner Charli XCX on this skittering dance-pop bop. Moriondo’s robotized vocals are warmed up by a jangling guitar outro, giving “CDbaby<3" a sweetly yearning tone.

Khalid – “Satellite”
Khalid’s starry-eyed “Satellite” sounds so light, it practically floats. With its crisp acoustic strums, airy synths, and a steady drum machine, Khalid’s new one isn’t anywhere near the first song to compare love and crushes to items in outer space, but he refreshes the formula with style and ease.

Tate McRae – “Uh Oh”
I like McRae’s warbly vocal work here, and the spooky synths give “Uh Oh” a fittingly ominous quality. This isn’t the best song I’ve heard from McRae, but it’s definitely solid.

Maluma – “Junio”
Written with frequent collaborator Edgar Barrera, the funk-flecked “Junio” has the Colombian singer fantasizing about a crush. Maluma’s “la la la”s on the bridge are a nice touch too, making it sound like “Junio” is floating above the clouds.

CLOSING TIME

more from Chained To The Rhythm: The Month In Pop

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