What’s immediately obvious upon listening to Charli XCX’s long-awaited third album is that the first track is a self-aware statement of intent — “Next Level Charli” is pretty spot on. Who knew that the woman who was signed at 14, the one who wrote hits for others but never herself, the one who seemed to constantly writhe beneath the sallow skin of the pop machine, could reach such a perfect level of self-actualisation?
Charli XCX long ago gave up on the machine and began channelling its faulty mechanisms into boundary-pushing, edgy post-pop and gained a whole new lifeblood in the process. With huge critical success and die hard fans who pore over unreleased songs as if they’re scripture, it’s a heartening story of letting go and saying “fuck you” to convention. That isn’t to say that she’s let go of the idea of true worldwide success. She supports Taylor Swift on tour and moonlights with claustrophobic club shows, releases lowkey mixtapes in between mainstream hits like “Boys” and “1999”.
Charli’s story has always been one of conflict, and her duality is no more apparent than on Charli, an album of two halves; punishing experimentation and big pop toplines. The result is an album that plates her myth in dazzling chrome, glittering with the new vulnerability of a person growing tired of the party.
None of this to say that she’s not still the person who says “party” enough to make it sound like a fake word. On “Shake It”, Charli largely takes a backseat to let Big Freedia, CupcakKe, Brooke Candy and Pabllo Vittar gleefully trample all over a track that sounds like a prolonged heart attack. With “Shake It” and “Click”, Charli tells us that she’s very much not watering down. She’s still very much trying to wrangle demonic screams out of the gays and have at least one person convulsing on the floor of a club. No one does mechanical pop hype music like Charli, and she’s never done it better than on this album.
Then there’s “Gone”. First of all, what a song. If this album is largely split into futuristic bangers and plaintive solo self-examination, “Gone” is where she fuses the two so seamlessly you won’t know why you’re crying during an epic dance breakdown. The track evokes that familiar post-cry existential euphoria. With the addition of the pitch-perfect vocals and typically evocative poetry of Christine and the Queens, “Gone” may well be a holographic jewel in the Perspex crown of Charli’s career.
Tracks like this sound like Charli reaching galaxy-brain-levels of creative synthesis, and there are a few moments of such transcendence scattered throughout the album. “February 2017” sounds like a treasured memory transferred to a hard drive and corrupted in the process, while “I Don’t Wanna Know” is a big ‘80s slow jam that sounds like it could feature the 1975 if it wasn’t perfect as it is. Even the relatively insubstantial “Warm” conjures an atmosphere that feels like a weighted blanket, and “Cross You Out” is just huge.
“What she’s made here is a culmination of the last two plus years of sonic world-building, the Avengers Endgame of albums, dripping with gloss which coats pistons furiously working at full pelt.“
This is a Charli album that, on first glance, might come off as her attempt to turn her newly-accrued cult status into true mainstream success for the first time in her career. There are big tropical bangers like “Blame It On Your Love”, a song which criminally underuses the effervescent Lizzo (as if the instantly sold out Olympia show wasn’t painful enough). There are overly-earnest ballads like “White Mercedes”, on which the most notable sound effect is the sound of Charli kicking herself in autotune for not releasing “Issues” instead of Julia Michaels.
This could come across as bet-hedging, but it somehow doesn’t. Charli’s too cool to aim squarely and shamelessly at the mainstream; she knows that her style is diamond-hard and just untethered enough that it could just as easily give her a massive hit as it could gain her thousands more Fila Disruptor-wearing stans on the underground. She knows that she’s miles ahead of the curve in her lavender Lamborghini and that that’s enough, despite the odd moment of questioning why she isn’t bigger than she is. The answer is that she deserves to be, but she probably won’t be, and does she really want to thrive in a space occupied by the Post Malones of the world?
What she’s made here is a culmination of the last two plus years of sonic world-building, the Avengers Endgame of albums, dripping with gloss which coats pistons furiously working at full pelt. It feels like the end of an era and the beginning of a new one, a dissonant pivot chord in the career of pop’s biggest maverick. Long may she vroom.