Charlie Puth Whines and Shines on ‘Voicenotes’

Pop R&B sensation Charlie Puth rose to fame via YouTube, and has adopted very much the persona that one would expect from such circumstances. He has won a fervent fan base, and an equally fervent base of opponents. He landed a longstanding number one hit with his Wiz Khalifa collaboration, “See You Again.” His debut single, “Marvin Gaye,” featuring vocals from Meghan Taylor, brought plenty attention, enhanced by a performance with a very sustained, passionate kiss and some heavy petting. Now, Puth has delivered his second album, “Voicenotes,” and it’s everything you expect from the young man.   

There’s a certain strain of ultra-commercial R&B that makes whining the default mode of singing, much like hardcore punk makes screaming. It’s really quite avant garde, if you think about it: 13 songs of nonstop, unadulterated, saccharine falsetto moping and crooning. The phenomenon reached its apex in the early ‘90s, when we were still suffering from the ‘80s. And just as we have period piece films that allow us to relive the horrors of, say, the dark ages, we have Charlie Puth bringing us his latest offering, “Voicenotes.” If you like to mold your hair into a flat-top, and prance around the room, cavorting and gesticulating, and have been searching in vain for a soundtrack that really captures the essence of the experience, you’ve just struck solid gold.

Music and vision go hand in hand, and the best cover art effectively evokes the same feeling of the music that it represents. If a glance at Puth’s album cover brings to mind words like, “deep” and “soulful,” this is totally your cup of tea. If it brings to mind words like, “WTF” and “douche,” this is also your cup of tea — if your proclivity for irony is so all-consuming that you seek out the worst tea available, and revel in making a grand display of sipping it and smiling in public, challenging yourself to affect a deadpan disposition, and suppress the visual effects of the double-edged, simultaneous onslaught of cringe and laughter.

All that said, Puth’s single, “Attention” is quite undeniably infectious. His syncopated, triplet-filled, mellifluous vocals, over the funky bass line, are immediately satisfying, and a single listen makes it apparent why Puth is a star in his particular niche. He does what he does well. There’s a certain indulgent R&B over-the-top theatricality that has left lonesome karaoke enthusiasts pining for the days of the yore. Such souls will find a welcome savior in Puth, a beacon for all their pent-up melismatic, cloying effrontery. It’s no surprise that one track, “If You Leave Me Now,” features Boyz II Men, and it’s also no surprise how it sounds.  

Another album highlight is the final track, “Through It All,” which finds Puth shying away slightly from the megastar spotlight that typifies most of the album, tapping into a vaguely gospel sensibility. It’s the most emotional moment in an album that purports to be emotional throughout. The difference is that it doesn’t seem forced. It suggests an avenue that might be worth exploring should Puth get a little adventurous in the future. It throws some variety into an album that is otherwise constant glossy magazine-cover pop. One thing is for sure, and that is that Puth is actually a good singer. He does what he does well. If you want to run wild with pop instincts that have fallen out of vogue, and relive all of the comfortably garish tomfoolery and unabashedly, comically trite, emotional outpouring involved, you could have no greater poster child than Puth.     

Voicenotes” is available May 11 on Apple Music.