Tuesday, December 16, 2014

album review: 'sucker' by charli xcx

There are a lot of pop acts that I wish I liked a lot more than I do, acts that might be very popular or who get a ton of critical acclaim and yet for many reasons just don't connect or click with me whatsoever. Because even though I'm a critic who likes all sorts of off-beat, weird material, I also cover the pop charts, and since there's nothing wrong with liking pop music in principle, I just wish more of it managed to connect with me.

Charli XCX is one of those artists, and how much I've liked or appreciated her music is really all over the map. 'I Love It', her feature on the smash hit from Icona Pop, was one of my favourite hit songs of last year, but having relistened to her last album since I reviewed it in written form, it still doesn't grip me. The heavy, fuzz-saturated beats, the gothic textures that recall a lot of darkwave's heaviness without the killer melodies, the lyrics that were sketched so broadly to be borderline insubstantial, and Charli XCX herself not presenting a consistent or all that likable persona. True Romance was trying to play itself as portentous and serious, but the writing or performances were rarely strong enough to hold up, and I was just left disappointed every time I tried to relisten to the album.

So with that in mind, I had a certain amount of trepidation in approaching her newest record Sucker, cited as a massive change in genre and focus to more of a pop rock sound. And while that was interesting, I haven't exactly been wild about either of her two biggest performances this year, her chorus on 'Fancy' with Iggy Azalea or her solo hit tied to The Fault In Our Stars 'Boom Clap'. It's not like they were bad, just lacking in distinctive flavour to really grip me, so I wasn't sure what I was getting with this record. But since this record has been getting rather shocking amounts of critical acclaim, I figured what the hell and dove in - what did I get?

Well, it's better than True Romance, I can say that, but the more I've listened through this album, the more I've realized that Sucker and indeed Charli XCX just isn't to my taste as an artist. I'm not saying she makes bad music, because there are songs on this album I do like, but that her overall approach to sound and lyrics just does not work for me, even though I get why it might work for others. And yet in a strange way, I get the niggling feeling that I should like Sucker a fair bit more than I do, because it took the exact same path Kesha took with Warrior in a shift towards more of a rock direction - and yet I can't quite say it's as good.

So let's start with what this album does right - and really, the biggest would probably be the major shift in sound from the darker, more atmospheric instrumentation to something a little rougher and more lean. This is bratty, in-your-face pop rock, pure and simple, and while I do think Charli XCX doesn't quite have enough of a raw edge vocally to really grip me as a pop rock vocalist, it is a better fit for her broader style. Hell, if we were looking for words to describe this album, 'broad would be the biggest one leaping to mind - this album operates in bold strokes, loud stomping choruses, exaggerated choruses that operate on pure hyperbole. We're not getting a lot of nuance - or really much of any - with this album, and to be fair it's not trying for that, looking to cater directly to a preteen/teenage demographic that can appreciate the potent emotions that drive such material. And while I appreciate more nuance, I could argue that I can appreciate this album much in the same way I love Andrew W.K. - this is party music, pure and simple.

And as such there's a limit to how much the lyrics matter - but to be fair to Charli XCX she and her arsenal of songwriters do have a knack for this sort of material. I will admit to being disappointed that Ariel Pink doesn't contribute more off-kilter weirdness to his track 'London Queen', but the obvious Japan references are a sign of Rivers Cuomo's contribution to 'Hanging Around', even if does feel like 'Beverly Hills: The Girl Version' with more squealing, grating effects. But for as much as the lyrics don't matter, there are a few moments that work reasonably well - 'London Queen' and 'Breaking Up' have the teenage sensibility they need to work pretty well, 'Boom Clap' does do a fairly good job capturing that thrill of a first love, and 'Body Of My Own' is the second song in two days about female masturbation and I have to say it sounds a lot more convincing coming from Charli XCX's faux-punk delivery than from Beyonce. But by far the most interesting song lyrically - and easily the best on the album - is 'Need Ur Luv', a song that actually demands Charli XCX display some subtlety as she sings about being so head-over-heels in love even as the guy is being a dick. And it also helps the retro-girl group vocals on the chorus operate in such sharp contrast to the verses where she sounds so weary and tired, and it lends some emotional complexity to a pretty straightforward record. Granted, not all the lyrics stick the landing. 'Break The Rules' has one of the better melodies on the album, but the lyrics come across as painfully dated, and while this album is shallow - and I don't hold that against it - the song 'Gold Coins' is such a thin and vapid fantasy of overblown wealth that I can't get behind it at all. And there are other nitpicks - take 'Doing It', a song that is basically saying, 'What I'm currently doing is awesome and fun... so let's keep doing it!' And maybe it's just me, but the sloppy situation in 'Famous' and the complete lack of irony to the glorification of that song is just not all that attractive or fun for me, especially with the cheap justification of trying to be like someone famous.

But really, all of this is dancing around the real issue of this album: the instrumentation and production. And really, this has been an issue that's bothered me with Charli XCX since the beginning, in that the majority of any melodies on her songs are going to be carried by her heavily-multitracked vocals instead of within the guitars or synth lines, which instead rely on an overload of banging percussion. I do like the attempts to bring more guitars in, but when they aren't crushed to weedy and thin pieces at the back of the mix or filtered through flat-feeling walls of distortion, they're so heavily chopped up and have no snarl to leave no real impact for me. It doesn't help matters that when we do get melodies, they're buried beneath all manner of pops, squealing synth effects, whistles, cacophonous clusters of drumming, cheap vocal filters piled on to make Charli XCX's vocals more prominent and rough, and overall contributing to a dense, busy, overmixed sound that just doesn't stick with me at all. Take 'Break The Rules', which starts with a tight thicker bass line, but the second the beat and EDM-inspired synths come in, that bassline feels jettisoned with the texture of the strumming contributing more to the beat, not any melody. Or all the glitchy attempts to add texture to a the solid bass line on 'London Queen', but as soon as the percussion and claps and high-chiptune come in, the melody feels marginalized. And while I'll give the album some credit for using a variety of percussion to fill up the entire mix, the same inherent problem remains in that the songs just don't stick with me in the same way. Instrumentally, they just begin to run together, with only songs like the synth-heavy 'Body Of My Own', the more acoustic 'Die Tonight', and the retro-leaning 'Need Ur Luv' really standing out. 

So at the end of the day, Sucker by Charli XCX is definitely an improvement, and a step towards a pop rock sound I'd like to see catch more fire on mainstream radio. And there is a certain charm to sticking to the basics like Andrew WK - but unlike him, Charli XCX emphasizes heavy beats over melody and it means the album is a lot less catchy or sticky or interesting for me, especially when I don't get much beyond it in the lyrics, which means it's getting a 6/10 from me. That said, if you've got a taste for this sort of bratty pop rock, you'll probably like Sucker, and while I don't love this record, I do like where it could be going from here.

1 comment:

  1. Well now I know to continue on my path to completely ignore this album. Thanks for the nuanced and informative review (again)!