Album review: Charli

As an artist who kicked off her career at age 14 performing at illegal warehouse raves, Charli XCX is known for churning out futuristic avant-pop bangers. Though often underappreciated, she has had a foundational influence on pop music both through songs she’s written for herself and those she’s written for other artists including Gwen Stefani, Selena Gomez, Camila Cabello, Ty Dolla $ign and Blondie. Her work has been groundbreaking and unique for upwards of a decade, and her new self-titled album “Charli” absolutely does not disappoint on this front — the record is yet another testament to her incredible range as an artist. The album evokes a new sound that continues the best elements of her beloved 2017 album “Pop 2,” including many of the same collaborations and aspects of production, but also includes new and unexpected collaborations, including Lizzo and HAIM and a newfound emotional depth not found in her earlier production-heavy bops such as “Femmebot” and “I Got It.” Deeply evocative, “Charli” experiments with an unprecedented breakthrough range of sound and emotion. The artist pushes herself to new limits musically and emotionally, as she explores pain, nostalgia, desperation, love and redemption.

“Charli” is about self-examination, delving into XCX’s own thoughts, fears and insecurities. She intersperses desperate expressions of pain like “Warm,” “Thoughts” and “White Mercedes” with monuments to her self-growth and independence. Tracks like “Next Level Charli,” “1999” and “Click” elicit loving nostalgia and appreciation for what she has, finding joy and love in simplicity. Charli XCX struggles between feeling irredeemably fallible and full of love for what she has, between finding redemption and going back again. She proves through her music that progress is not linear, and giving yourself over to the vulnerability necessary for love is not easy. 

The first five tracks are potent and bold, but do not yet foray into the raw yet delicate intensity we encounter later. They set up an unapologetic expression of self that prepares the listener for later exposure. The opening track “Next Level Charli” is a transformative electronic intro where she finds joy in small, ostensibly un-monumental moments. She introduces elements of pop-escapism that reappear in “1999,” “Click” and “Shake It.” These glittering moments and poppy synthetic beats distract from the pain, but also are emblems of hope. “Gone,” the second song of the album, is an absolute standout track. For the first time, she introduces the anxieties of feeling alone in a crowd and bares herself honestly. She voices her existential uneasiness to strong yet haunting melodies, broken yet unapologetically resilient. “Cross You Out” is a powerful yet intimate story of leaving a toxic relationship, building up Charli’s strength before she questions it later. The opening power chords contrast with soft opening lyrics, building up to a haunting chorus, delicate and beautiful, that ends definitively in strength. The bridge, sung by Sky Ferreira, is light, delicate and ethereal, adorned by high floating notes as she affirms her growth. The next two tracks, “Click” and “1999,” both draw on happier elements of appreciation, nostalgia and escapism.

The more acute and difficult vulnerability builds up with “Warm,” a track featuring HAIM. Here and in subsequent tracks, the pain she powers over in the first five tracks rears its head. The song is soft and reflective; HAIM’s verse radiates sunlit love, and the effect, layered with avant-pop beats, is unexpected and unique. Following “Thoughts,” a drug-induced stupor where she processes pain more intently and urgently in desperate pleas floating upwards, “Blame It On Your Love” provides brief light-hearted relief, before falling back into the once-again desperate “White Mercedes,” “Silver Cross” and “I Don’t Wanna Know.” She continues her apologies in “Blame It On Your Love,” but this time, they are less urgent and more full of love. In the following songs, she falls back into despairing in regret, guilt and denial.

“Official” and “Shake It” briefly foray into bliss before the album grounds in “February 2017” and “2099.” Through the pulsing intro and fluttering undertones of “Official,” she explores and celebrates her vulnerability, coming to terms with her fallibility. She finds peace instead of fear in being known and learns to define herself and her relationships holistically rather than by faults and worries. “Shake It” is another escapist banger: electronic, intense and full of excellent features from Cupcakke, Big Freeida, Brooke Candy and Pabllo Vittar. In “February 2017,” she confronts her previous denial and asks for forgiveness. Now her apologies are soft but no longer desperate. Electronic scratches in “2099” pay homage to her previous album “Pop 2” as she finds resolution in herself and owns her fallibility.

If you have not yet journeyed into the realm of gay electro-pop, this album is the way to do it. The end result is an absolutely beautiful synthesis of sound and emotion, a poignant and evocative exploration of emotional turmoil and tribulation. “Charli” gives voice to a virtually universally resonant journey, and leaves us some bangers in the process.

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