Monday, September 16, 2019

album review: 'charli' by charli xcx

I saw Charli XCX live less than a month ago. I saw her on the main stage at Reading Festival as she blew through so many of the hits she had either created or cowritten and she was dancing her ass off to ramp up the energy for a tough afternoon set... and yet even as I watching, I had the lingering feeling that something was wrong. This should all be working... and yet it wasn't quite getting there.

And when I reflect upon her career and the constant spurt of hype from critics whenever she pushes out another genre-pushing pop project, I'm left with the niggling feeling that Charli XCX has been torn between a few different worlds for a long time. On the one hand, you have the mainstream push where she could absolutely be huge, with the distinctive voice, the theatricality, the knack for hooks, the surprisingly deep well of connections and guests she can pull upon, where she can build a whole set on those moments! But that's not all she is, and where she's mused publicly where she might be better off writing behind the scenes... because the other side of her art is the PC Music and SOPHIE side with the contorted electronics and sounds dragging pop music forward kicking and screaming, where she's grabbed so many critics, but not really the mainstream in the same way, at least not yet. At the festival I left convinced that for a nightclub or theater show she would be far more effective with her experimental work instead of fighting to hold a listless and scorching festival audience mid-afternoon, and fair enough - atmosphere is often one of the hardest things for any artist to control or manipulate, especially on a massive stage where she didn't seem to have a huge team behind her - but at this point I feel like I've been watching Charli's hype for most of the decade, and while I have to applaud her sustainability, you have to wonder why her balancing act hasn't quite blown her up into a superstar yet, especially if the music is good. Some of that I have to blame on her team and label, but when you are an artist ahead of your time with hype that seems bigger than her audience... well again, it's tough.

Now for me, I've never quite been truly 'wowed' by a Charli XCX project all the way through - more of my lingering tonal issues with the PC Music camp which don't always connect - but hey, I do find her a fascinating artist and I did have real hopes for Charli, so did it click this all the way this time?

...well, not quite, but the more listens I gave to Charli, the more I'm convinced that she's so damn close to fully sticking the landing across a full project that this album remains pretty tantalizing. But remember that warped balance I referenced Charli has been trying to sustain in recent years? More than ever, I can see this laying all the composite, fractured pieces out, and while it doesn't quite coalesce, I can see the path for her to get there, and while I'll freely admit that what I like from Charli XCX seems to be wildly different than all of her fans - my favourite song of hers is 'Need Ur Luv' from Sucker, for instance - let me make my case.

And the first thing to note is that while I don't tend to talk much about Charli XCX's lyrics, I will make note of a slight change this time around - as I've said before, when Charli XCX doesn't really lean into the futuristic, slightly roboticized and warped side of her lyrics I'm not normally enamoured with them, mostly because otherwise her material trends towards broadly conventional pop tropes. And that's still true here - we're not getting songs as high-concept or alien as 'Femmebot' this time around, and in terms of pure poetry it does mean this album has taken steps towards the conventional. But I'm not going to lie and say that her frustrated yearning feels a bit more desperate this time around - the drugs and cars and bottles and raves feel less like a flex and more just numbing deflections, and even then, we're still getting songs like 'Warm' and 'Official' where she's absolutely trying to show more vulnerability. And when you pair them with cuts like 'February 2017' - which many fans has speculated is an extended apology to her current boyfriend, where after an extended absence they've now reunited - these are probably some of the most human songs that Charli XCX has ever written, from the overprotective blaze of glory on 'Silver Cross' to the exasperated moment of feelings on 'Blame It On Your Love' and 'White Mercedes' - probably my two favourite songs here - to the moment of exultant relief when she can finally excise toxic people from her life on 'Cross You Out'. Hell, it can't help but make the more obviously 'mainstream pop' cuts like '1999' feel a little out-of-place - it's a good song, don't get me wrong, but would have killed either Charli or Troye Sivan to actually make the song sound like it was from that era of pop if she wants more of that carefree nostalgia trip? And then there's 'Click' and 'Shake It', the most plastic and shallow cuts here, and if '1999' feels out of place, these are barely better, working more on overpolished, cacophonous texture and losing oneself in the hedonistic vibe than matching the more emotive core of the rest of the album.

But that's the balancing act of contradictions, and leads into the conversation of production and those pieces that all show promise but rarely come together into a seamless whole. On the one hand you have Charli XCX the mainstream pop artist, who works with Stargate and watt and who can ride conventional production with plenty of glossy synth, bouncy grooves, and occasionally pulls out a huge hook - and as a singer, she can hold her own here, but this is where her writing just doesn't quite have the same unique poetic flair, even if she's touching more heartfelt territory. But in the other hand you have Charli XCX the experimental electronic provocateur, who works with PC Music and embraces a whirling, warped futurism both in her heavily synthesized vocals and poetry that finds real passion in her femmebot heart; more flair and detail to be sure, but along the way any coherent groove or most of the compositional song structure tends to get jettisoned or obscured for the unsteady, glassy tremors. Or to put it another way, you have 'Blame It On Your Love' featuring Lizzo in one hand, and 'Track 10' from Pop 2 in the other, one basically serving as the contorted remix of the other - and yet let me make this clear, I love both of these songs as the best of both styles! 

That's my main point: I don't think she has to go in one way or the other, instead finding the synthesis in the middle, and at this album's best, I can see that raw potential come together. Take a song like 'Gone' with Christine and The Queens, which hits much of that balance in its booming synth, drippy touches and spare trap percussion before collapsing into elongated glassy shards, or even moreso the oily trudge of 'Cross You Out' featuring Sky Ferreira - keep the claustrophobic blending, maybe even just up the tempo a little more and you have a challenging but workable crossover. Same with the faint burbling flutters all around the heavily-autotuned HAIM collaboration 'Warm', or with the gargling buzzsaw of synth breaking across 'Silver Cross' - these songs feel dense because of all the synths, but there's that same underlying rock-solid compositional structure - a little modulation to give the hook as much presence or punch as the glassy fractures that on tone alone draw attention away from Charli, or maybe a bit more focus on driving melodic groove. That's something I've noticed about PC Music production for a while now - more of a focus or gleaming sparks of texture than on tune or groove, and where songs can feel underdeveloped as a result if the layers aren't stacked deep, which is why when Charli wrestles control of those tones into a structure, we get some striking moments. But when she can't, we get the overmixed, underwritten, blaring bangers of 'Click' and 'Shake It', which I get are not for me but I think could work even with PC Music texture if they were given a stable low-end or some sense of modulation in the same way that, say, Lazerbeak and Paper Tiger gave SHREDDERS, or at the very least not feature collaborators who only ramp up the obnoxiousness to intolerable levels like Tommy Cash or Brooke Candy.

But for the project as a whole... it's hard for me to listen to Charli and not hear those contradictions and compromises forced by a label that I'm now convinced doesn't know how to guide and market Charli XCX worth a damn. But even if she was on Warp or Sub Pop instead of Asylum, I'm very much aware I'm not really among the diehard fans who love all the PC Music contortions and who hate the mainstream concessions, or among the larger fanbase that only knows her for 'I Love It', 'Fancy' and 'Boom Clap' and can't process these harsh electronics. And while I'm convinced there's a synthesis that can be experimental and nab that crossover and finally pay off the neverending stream of hype... Charli is not that - but the pieces are there and the more emotionally expressive writing has weight, even minus some of the poetic artifice. It is absolutely good, though, which is why I'm giving this a 7/10 and a recommendation, with the hope that maybe a change of management or label might be on the horizon or at the very least Charli XCX is allowed clarity to chase her vision without getting torn in a half dozen directions. The tears did make for good song this time around, but I know there can be greatness.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with so many of your comments here. Charli’s dual-faced approach to music has been clear since Vroom Vroom, and I expected this record to commit to her collaborative PC Music side, where it’s clear that she belongs full-time. Instead, those tracks toward the second half of the record seem like the compromise associated with a major-label record and really put a halt to the first half’s speeding train. But I think the collaborations burn bright enough to outweigh the unsuccessful solo cuts.