When people talk about Charli as futuristic, though, they’re not talking about her workaday writing. They’re talking about her brand in relation to the marketplace: like Madonna if she’d never left CBGB, or like someone playing Pitchfork Fest but also Good Morning America. They’re also talking about her production choices. Her new album, Charli, builds on the style of her 2017 mixtapes, Number 1 Angel and Pop 2, which took all the buzz about her as a visionary and converted it into an explicitly “futuristic” aesthetic—chipperly artificial, digital, distorted. The related visuals have her plastic-wrapped, or gel-coated. Often it sounds like she’s trapped in glitching Bluetooth frequency, or that she thinks the next great single will be in the form of an iPhone notification sound.
This sonic-hologram approach owes much to the U.K. collective called PC Music, led by A. G. Cook, who’s now Charli’s “creative director.” Back around 2015, PC Music’s outrageous dance tracks—jagged but irrepressible, sugary like ant poison—attracted acclaim as, say it again, the future of pop. The time since then has seen mixed success at making that hype a reality. The PC Music ally Sophie, for example, put out one of the best albums of 2018, but her work with Madonna and Vince Staples hasn’t exactly slayed the charts. When the 2015 Sophie-produced Charli XCX single “Vroom Vroom” went big on TikTok, it was like a prophecy fulfilled: The tune had captured the attention-strained, jokey, energy-drink vibe of that platform before it even existed.
PC Music’s work, in fact, usually reads as satire of the desperation and false cheer that rule tech-pop culture. Its best songs are the ones in which humankind seems endangered, its voices trapped in a ZIP file while eager-to-please Siri-like bots take their place. The collective’s collaborations with flesh-and-blood singers like Carly Rae Jepsen thus sometimes feel wrong: You’re not sure who the joke’s on. The sardonic Charli XCX makes for a better team member; she’s game for her pouty voice to be treated less as an instrument than as a sample. Still, the tension between songwriterly communication and sonic mischief can be awkward. She never lands a square triumph of a song on Charli, though she gets close enough that the interesting factor makes up for it.
The album starts jarringly with “Next Level Charli” issuing a monotonous rallying cry for some species that has less-sensitive ears than our own. It features the signature Charli/Cook ingredients—video-poker synths over a simple beat with warbly and watery vocals—but every knob is turned so high that what’s conjured is the after-party migraine rather than the pre-party adrenaline rush. Luckily, Charli follows with “Gone,” an agreeably swirling anthem about that very 2019 sentiment of hating the party you’re at. The bridge goes bonkers in the style of Aphex Twin, but the biggest breakthrough is in the fun, lyrical mouthfeel: “They’re making me lo-oa—oathe,” Charli and the guest frontwoman of Christine and the Queens croon.