A backstory is perhaps not the most exciting way to start a review, but the drama behind “Charli” goes a long way toward explaining why, nearly five years after her last official album, Charli XCX’s latest is such a triumph.
At the end of 2014, then 22-year-old Charlotte Aitchison was on top of the world, with a smash hit as a solo artist (“Boom Clap”), another as a co-writer and featured collaborator (Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy”), another as a songwriter (Icona Pop’s “I Love It”), and a critically feted sophomore album (“Sucker”). But with her career on a fast track, she began to sour on the music she’d been making — she’s said she hates “Sucker” — and veered into a much stranger, more confrontational strain of songs, often in collaboration with A.G. Cook (an executive producer here), Sophie and others who specialize in mutant pop with mechanical noises, sped-up voices and clattering, cacophonous beats.
A hyper-prolific artist who spews out music like a tempestuous volcano, Charli became frustrated by the music industry’s antiquated album/tour/repeat model and began sparring publicly with her record label; she completed an album called “XCX World” that leaked in 2017, so she abandoned it; and dropped dozens of one-off songs and even two full-length mixtapes of often off-kilter pop tunes. Ironically, at the same time, she was touring the world opening for Taylor Swift and is a co-writer of Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello’s summer smash “Señorita.”
Yet somehow, all of that dissonance has resulted in a mature, fully realized and downright visionary album that achieves her oft-stated goal of “pushing pop as far as it can go.” “Charli” is the best of both worlds: It’s innovative and adventurous but not off-puttingly weird; it finds her fine-tuning her pop instincts without getting overly gushy. It’s one of the most intelligent and sophisticated pop albums of the past decade, a merging of Hollywood sheen and European experimentation that — musically, anyway — is on a par with classics of that genre like Robyn’s self-titled 2005 album, Lady Gaga’s “The Fame” and Swift’s “1989.”
The album blasts off with “Next Level Charli,” a brash manifesto — “I go hard, I go fast/ And I never look back” — that she delivers in a rapid-fire rap-singing style that slams a pop melody into the cadence of hip-hop. Underpinned by a shimmering synth hook and atmospheric bass notes, the song is driven almost entirely by her powerful flow. It’s a striking stylistic turn that shows how far she’s come as a singer, and there’s absolutely nothing else like it on the album, which flows confidently from lilting pop to soaring ballads to upbeat party jams.
Anchoring it all are several well-chosen duets: Charli is a serial collaborator who generously shares the spotlight, and the best of the multiple tag-teams here — particularly “Gone” with Christine and the Queens, “Cross You Out” with Sky Ferreira and “Warm” with Haim — find her and her partners tossing melodies back and forth like a Frisbee, one-upping each other with vocal flips and flourishes. And the collaborations with artists whose voices are less naturally complementary to hers, Troye Sivan on “1999” and Lizzo on “Blame It on Your Love,” bridge the gaps with simpler, more direct melodies (she even does a slightly Swiftian ad-lib during Sivan’s verse on “1999”). While there are clear influences throughout the album, it’s all part of the ever-churning mix of styles: Sounds from the ’80s to the ’00s to the future flash by, evoking the Human League one moment, “Umbrella” the next; “Thoughts” finds Charli, an Autotune virtuoso, twisting her voice into wild shapes over a synth hook that resembles the THX sound test in a movie theaters.
Many fans of prolific, possibly ADD-addled artists — from Prince and Kanye to Sia and Guided by Voices — often wish that those artists would release 12 great songs, rather than 50 interesting ones with 12 songs’ worth of truly great ideas in them. With “Charli” and the five years and dozens of songs that preceded it, we have both. Ironically, it finds this gifted, restless and (apparently) easily bored artist creating exactly the kind of work she seemed to be resisting — a real, traditional album, with an arc and shape and multiple moods, a smooth but exhilarating cruise rather than a jarring joyride. The songs complement each other and contribute to a stronger whole, and are delivered with the confidence of an artist at the top of her game.