Looking back on the year she’s had, it’s hard to believe that the phrase “Charli XCX, mainstream pop force” was nothing but daydream fodder for the pop cognoscenti little more than a year ago. Forged in the late-’00s crucible of the MySpace music scene and signed to a label when most people are trying to get through high school, Charlotte Aitchison was a critical darling long before she was a chart presence: after leaving a scrappy self-recorded debut in the dust, early singles like “Stay Away” and “Nuclear Seasons” picked up plaudits but failed to dent the conversation of casual pop fans. It took the surprise explosion of “I Love It”—a demo she tossed to Swedish party gremlins Icona Pop on a whim, and helped to sing—into an international hit to generate the momentum required for her first full-length, True Romance. An amalgamation of her best singles to date and some sterling new material, the album sated critics again but came and went without leaving any sort of commercial impression.
After peppy advance single “SuperLove” landed with a thud at the end of 2013, Charli found herself in a familiar position: beloved by pop Twitterati and devoted fans, but lacking the sort of chart firepower many felt her talent warranted. By the summer of 2014, the script had flipped: with assists from rapping Australian supernova Iggy Azalea and a soundtrack spot on teen drama The Fault in Our Stars, she had credits on the defacto Song of the Summer (the former’s “Fancy”) and her own solo top 10 hit, the swooning “Boom Clap”. Sucker is her second studio album, and perhaps the years of hard work and compositional refinement it took to reach the top helped to shape the record’s uncompromising sensibility; this is an album that seeks to bend the mainstream to its will rather than conform to its reigning trends. And in a bold display of self-confidence and strength of personality, it operates under the premise that Charli is a viable star even though the record will ultimately constitute a referendum on the validity of that assumption.
There’s a great deal of volatility to Charli’s writing and artistic growth, and it shows in both her evolution leading up to Sucker and the sound of the album itself. Her great early singles were glittering and booming and a little desperate, wrapped up in love in all of its life-or-death glory; on cuts like “So Far Away”, she sunk into swooning, gaseous dreamscapes. By the end of the period covered by True Romance, she had moved on to brash anthems for cool cheerleaders like “I Love It” and “SuperLove”; disillusioned with the music industry in the time leading up to Sucker, she decamped to Sweden with producer pal Patrik Berger (whose credits are all over the finished product) and put together an unreleased roaring punk record that’s already entered into the annals of pop myth. Imagine a world where the boisterous onomatopoeic chant that kicks off “Boom Clap” is sped up and made the whole song, and it’s an even bigger hit somehow; that’s the world of Sucker.
Broadly speaking, it’s a collection of colorful power-pop that occasionally veers outside the lines into punk and new wave; there are a few sentimental songs, but they’re a lot more compact than the breathy, grand highlights of True Romance. And though Charli keeps the pace brisk and focuses more on speed and attitude than detail, there’s a real sense of craft that seeps through cracks in the record’s sneering facade. Rampaging highlights like the hilarious “London Queen” are still stained with harmony and impressive vocal layering. With its sharp riffs, tight structure, and confident, bratty snarl—tricks cribbed from the Strokes and Weezer, Kesha and Gwen Stefani, and M.I.A.—Sucker distances itself from the work of many other female pop stars that have ruled 2014: the Gothic precociousness of Lorde, the tidy lines and weaponized hooks of Taylor Swift, the focus group LCD pandering of Meghan Trainor. Its closest cousin might be One Direction’s Four, a record that finds the hunky urchins steering into classic rock and gleaming Phoenix-like riffs; Sucker is a little harder to pin down, a little less formulaic.
Charli also seeks to differentiate herself from her peers through her attitude; she defines herself through her opposition to the machinery of the pop music industry, and through a sneering independent streak that’s strong enough to be distinct but complementary rather than disruptive. Where other pop stars are reliant, even dependent, on the cultivation of relatability, she embraces and lampoons wealth and power and independence, often to humorous effect. On “London Queen”, she conquers America, drives on the wrong side of the road to feel like JFK, and refuses to return to Britain until she’s won enough to fill a wall with plaques. She builds a fortress out of money on the blown out “Gold Coins” and relaxes with a cigarette inside. She has a gift for line delivery that grants her put-downs a spiteful glow, and when she opens the raucous “Breaking Up” with, “You had an ugly tattoo, and fucking cheap perfume!” it’s all the characterization the listener needs. Sucker is also a record that’s largely detached from romance—any saccharine stuff, like girl group tribute “Need Ur Luv”, is delivered with tongue firmly in cheek—and Charli is content to revel in hanging with friends and in her individual sexuality, like on salacious pro-masturbation romp “Body of My Own”.
If you think this sounds like a lot to swallow, you’re absolutely right; Sucker is a crowded and surprisingly dense record, given that the majority of its songs are concerned with the various fruits of stardom. It can be an exhausting listen if you’re not fully prepared for its willfully destructive energy. The credits are stuffed with a wide breadth of writers and producers plucked from every corner of the contemporary pop world: industry superstars like Benny Blanco and Greg Kurstin, rising producers like Cashmere Cat, indie darlings (Ariel Rechtshaid, Vampire Weekend‘s Rostam Batmanglij, gonzo doofus Ariel Pink), and none other than Weezer godhead Rivers Cuomo (on the “Beverly Hills” rip “Hanging Around”). That the album has any sort of coherence and consistency is a credit to Charli’s personality and presence, her lust for life and palpable joy. And that may not be enough for some listeners. With its carefully chosen samples (Todd Rundgren!) and swirling, love-drunk arrangements, True Romance oozed craft and measured cool; Sucker opens with a chorus built around the gleeful chant of “Fuck you! Sucker!”
With that said, there’s something undeniably exciting to me about a scenario in which a young fan, fresh out of falling in love with “Boom Clap” or “Fancy”, comes to this record and discovers an uncompromising, ferocious talent, self-assured and empowered and incredibly versatile. Sucker isn’t an endpoint for Charli—she’s already talking about her next record, inspired by J-pop and “intensely weird and childlike”—and it’s not her finest work, but it’s plenty good enough to rope a cohort of new fans into what’s promising to be one hell of a creative ride.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1usQfpV