Pop star or pop maverick? Charlotte Emma Aitchison is talented enough to go in either direction, and her entire career to date has felt like a struggle between the two camps. 2014’s Sucker focused on radio-friendly pop/rock like the hit ‘Boom Clap’, while 2017’s mix-tape Pop 2 was experimental and textural. Charli, her first official studio album for five years, attempts to bridge the gap between these two facets.
Charli is a largely successful compromise that showcases the range of Charli XCX’s capabilities. It can be an exhausting listen, due to the volume of guest stars and the unceasingly glossy production from PC Music’s A.G. Cook, but it’s a fascinating smorgasbord of different approaches.
One of the highlights of Charli comes from the guest spot from Christine and the Queens. Chris’ airy voice blends beautifully with Charli XCX’s husky tones, and the song’s chorus is warm and inviting. It forms a strong opening pair with ‘Next Level Charli’, a terrific opener that largely dispenses with melody in favour of building intensity with layers of vocals and synths.
Sometimes Charli sounds like it’s trying too hard for commercial success. ‘Blame It On Your Love’ is a streamlined version of ‘Track 10’ from Pop2, and it’s less satisfying despite the Lizzo cameo. ‘1999’ isn’t a Prince cover, but feels like a half-hearted, lowest common denominator single, even though the video, full of 1990s tropes like a reenactment of Titanic and The Spice Girls, is charming.
Charli XCX’s maverick pop sense takes her in a few directions on Charli. She’s mellow surprisingly often, like on the single ‘White Mercedes’. There’s a lovely and soaring duet with Sky Ferreira on ‘Cross You Out’, while HAIM guest on the pretty ‘Warm’.
Conversely Charli flirts with provocative and futuristic R&B, like ‘Click’ and ‘Shake It’. On the latter she delivers the chorus, while letting her quartet of guest stars each have a turn with the verses.
The something-for-everyone approach of Charli can be frustrating, and it’s less satisfying than her moody debut True Romance or the futuristic pop of 2017 mixtape Pop 2. But with a little judicious skipping, there’s a strong pop album here.