Charli XCX’s last two mixtapes ended on high notes; Number 1 Angel ended with “Lipgloss,” a confection of deliciously smeared synths that transported the listener straight to the eye of some glorious vinyl confetti hurricane, while Pop 2 ended with “Track 10,” a wintry masterpiece that found Charli in the midst of a crystalline choir, twitching drums, and code-based synthetic chirps that sounded like a short-circuiting bionic bird. Both songs (and mixtapes) marked collaborations with British producer A.G. Cook and his avant-pop collective PC Music. Their partnership has offered a rare glimpse of pop music’s potential to be a progressive, even subversive, medium. Charli may be a cog in the mainstream music apparatus (she co-wrote Icona Pop’s “I Love It,” Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” and Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello’s “Señorita" after all), but she’s a revolutionary at heart. In Cook, she has found a fellow visionary capable of helping her merge her twin creative impulses: to construct towering pop anthems, and to subsequently burn them down.
Her new album Charli follows in the vein of Pop 2. It sounds even more cavernous, but isn’t nearly as revelatory. The production co-stars; A.G. Cook produced or co-produced all but one track on the album, and Charli is an eager vehicle for his experimentation with pop sounds, if not form; her voice, forever drenched in auto-tune, traverses a broad range of effects such that it seldom sounds the same twice. Industrial-grade, hyper-glitchy bass and percussive textures work as shards that pierce the album’s adorable, sparkling canopy of bells and synths. With its massive choruses, reverb-soaked drums, and occasional invocation of Phil Collins’ iconic drum fill in “In The Air Tonight,” Charli sometimes feels like one long, mighty power ballad, one that’s meant to be played in an enclosed space, like a club or arena or Martian terrarium, rather than any outdoor venue. Charli carries certain face-melting properties; several of its songs blister, warp, and decompose over time, as a result of Cook and company’s habit of introducing new production elements as each track unfolds. The last minute of “Gone” deconstructs everything that has come before it, and concludes with a series of increasingly fragmented vocal filters. “Click” opens with a frictionless, anthemic bass melody, and ends by transforming that same melody nearly beyond recognition, so that it sounds more like the terrible, fluttering alien screeches of the Stranger Things Demagorgon. “Next Level Charli,” “Warm,” and “Thoughts” all end in style, with abstracted, acrobatic auto-Tune cascades from Charli. But inventive sound design is everywhere on the album, often in songs’ opening breaths – the Inception-bass of “Cross You Out,” the gothic fountain of synths of “Thoughts,” the galloping strings and firefly finger snaps of “Silver Cross,” the sputtering fax machine and glimmering steel of “2099.”
Charli recently aired out a major depressive episode on Instagram. “u guys are really kind,” she wrote. “Sorry I’m an emotional wreck… I think it’s ok to feel these feelings.” This impulse to slow down, earnestly reflect, and confess to profound emotional distress grounds Charli and evenly balances out the breakneck speed hedonism that has defined much of her oeuvre. On “Gone,” her social anxiety is out of control, temporarily saved only by the urge to drown her insecurities in alcohol. On “Thoughts,” her career burnout feels crippling, almost life-threatening: “Fucked up, I wanna break glass / Braindead for days, and I’m gonna relapse / Ten planes in five days, I been round the world and back again.”
Charli has said that Charli is her most personal work yet. This bears true in the representations of love and heartbreak that constitute the album’s tender, heavy heart. What’s impressive is how she treats lovesickness as both personal and universal; when she expresses feelings of inadequacy and self-destructiveness, she seems to speak, to an extent, for both her and her partner. Charli reaches its quiet climax on “Official”; over gorgeous production that feels remarkably restrained compared to the maximal tendencies of the rest of the album, Charli makes the poetic case that the essence of love is to make it more permanent and stable. “You know the shapes my body makes under the sheets at 4 AM with you / You know the words to my mistakes, you understand because you made them too,” she sings.
Charli is certainly forward-thinking, but to what extent does she live up to the “futuristic” label frequently applied to her? There is something distinctly 21st century in the array of guests she’s curated on the album, who skew strongly toward the feminine and hail from around the world and across the gender and sexual spectrum. With guest artists from France (Heloise Letissier), Korea (Yaeji), Brazil (Pabblo Vittar), Estonia (Tommy Cash), Germany (Kim Petras), and Australia (Troye Sivan), not to mention several artists from across the United States, Charli works to map queerness on a global scale. Charli is also literally futurist in its parallels to the early 20th century art movement Futurism, which was inspired by the advent of the automobile and sought to express, above all, speed. Charli often seems to sing from the perspective of the back of a moving vehicle that is aggressively navigating Hollywood traffic, perhaps in the midst of some Grammy night afterparty shenanigans. Cars recur frequently on Charli, often animated via reference to her 2016 song and major stylistic turning point “Vroom Vroom.” “I go speeding on the highway,” she sings on “Next Level Charli,” “Flame burning / Tire screech.” For Charli, cars seem to represent agency and the ability to act on her conflicting desires— to pull up to the party, and to flee it.
Like Charli’s previous projects, Charli ends on a high note with “2099,” which carries a sparkling, robotic sheen that sometimes devolves into metallic gurgling. As Cook and his PC Music affiliate Ö make 808 tones sound like some kind of rubber zipper that hasn’t been invented yet, Charli and her trusty sidekick Troye Sivan communicate their need for speed in heavily fragmented sentences: “I'm Pluto, Neptune, pull up, roll up, future, future, ah / Fast like a Nascar, never touch us / I'm zooming like a jet ski, zoom zoom / Little dose of napalm, blow it up.” It’s the kind of flex only Charli XCX would ever dream up; a flex that is something otherworldly, post-human, not from Earth. And yes, futuristic.