Charli XCX Returns With the Avant-Pop of ‘Charli’

Charli XCX, born Charlotte Atchinson, first rose to prominence from a slew of singles and features on other artists’ songs. From a writing credit and supporting vocals on Iconapop’s “I Love It” and a feature on Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” to her own hit “Boom Clap,” Charli proved herself to be an energetic songwriter. It wasn’t until her association with producer A.G. Cook and PC Music, however, that she began pioneering the upbeat, experimental, electronic-infused pop she’s come to be known for in recent years. Her mixtapes, “Number 1 Angel” and “Pop 2,” along with her “Vroom Vroom” EP, have become defining hallmarks of her discography, though her story with electronic music started years prior, when she began performing at raves and uploading songs to Myspace under her MSN moniker: Charli XCX. Now, Charli returns with her third studio album, “Charli,” a futuristic avant-pop experiment in songcraft.

“Charli” is a unique record in that it seamlessly blends Atchinson’s underground sensibilities with pop stylings. The feature list is stacked, with everyone from Lizzo, Troye Sivan, and Big Freedia to Haim, Clairo, and Christine and the Queens making an appearance. It’s all low, buzzing or pounding bass and 808s, digitized vocal modulation, sweet melodies, bright synths, and grimy electronic breakdowns. It’s an album about parties and electronic music, fast cars, drugs, and heartbreak, as well as the trials of fame and social anxiety.

Ethereal and dreamy synths open “Next Level Charli.” Atchinson drops bars about going “hard and fast,” “speeding on the highway,” and turning “the volume up in your Prius.” The percussion is all kick and bright snare, with saccharine backing vocals and swelling synth melodies. “Gone” is a song which features French singer Christine and the Queens and is about feeling isolated and anxious around a crowd of people, “I try real hard, but I’m caught up in my insecurities… I feel so unstable, fucking hate these people” There’s popping, buzzing bass, and initially restrained pop percussion. The chorus is cathartically big and reverbed out, and there’s a drum break with chopped up vocals toward the end.

“Cross You Out” is all bass and bubblegum synth. It features Sky Ferreira and is about moving on from traumatic relationships, “Built a world all in my mind / All on my own, will I survive? / Century of tears / Sadness was my only smile, yeah / So I fall apart / But you’re gone and I’m doing fine / I’m screaming out.” “1999,” featuring Troye Sivan, is the first single. Charli sings about ‘90s nostalgia, dropping references to Britney Spears, Nike Airs, and listening to CDs in an old Mercedes. The chorus is a full blown pop banger with appropriately bubbly ‘90s synth. It was apparently composed in Max Martin’s compound studio in L.A., who, funnily enough, suggested referencing “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” a song that he wrote and produced.

“Click” opens with big synth, reversed drums, a lullaby melody, and other off-kilter textures. It’s a bit all over the place, and features a braggadocious Kim Petras verse about designer clothing. There’s also a verse from Tommy Cash and a nasty electronic break at the end. “Warm” features Haim and is about wanting to be in a loving relationship with an unreciprocated partner. Sliding, distorted synth opens “Thoughts,” a song about feeling lost and frustrated. It’s more contemplative, but features bright keys and flourishes of warped vocals, “Did I lose it all? Did I fuck it up? Are my friends really friends now or are they far gone? On the drugs at a bar, took ‘em all cause I’m thinking ‘bout you.”

“Blame It On Your Love,” featuring Lizzo, starts more upbeat and percussive. There are percolating synths, with a chorus that opens up with deep synth and piano. There’s electronic break and horn textures in the post-chorus, with Lizzo singing on the bridge and final chorus. “White Mercedes” starts with light strings and snaps, Charli sings about romantic frustration and insecurities, “You know I’ve got a suit of armor on, you’ll never see me cry / I hate the silence, that’s why the music’s always loud.” There’s also a big, ‘80s inspired chorus with strings that almost remind you of that Police song “Every Breath You Take.” 

There’s a poignant imagery on “Silver Cross,” a track about providing solace for a romantic partner, “I’ll pull you close, so close, so close / I’ll never let you go, you know / Head on my chest, a silver cross / You can cry all night, I’ll never let you go.” Things take a turn for the balladic with “I Don’t Wanna Know,” with reverberating vocals, snare, and soft rolling synth. It’s a Fleetwood Mac adjacent track about romantic turmoil, “Laying in silence / You were a diamond, bright / Yeah, touching my fingertips / Melting into the night / Secrets are locked up / Prison cell in your mind / Kisses fall off of her lips / Kisses that should’ve been mine.”

“Official” continues in the balladic vein with a percussive, repetitive synth that eggs on a vocal melody. Swirling synth breaks on the chorus with backing vocals, as the lyrics reflect on a romantic relationship. There’s tinkering synth on the second verse, but it’s overall a slow moving song with deep bass. “Shake It” features Big Freedia, Cupcakke, and a slew of rappers over a beat that warps into distorted, pounding bass and brassy percussion, but Charli’s intro and chorus vocals are warped and chopped in an experimental fashion.

The album moves to a close with the elegiac “February 2017,” a bright, but minimalist pop song — other than the breaks in the post-chorus, that is — which is apologetic and full of romantic regret. A radio dial flips towards the end with a Yaeji outro softly sung in Korean. “2099” closes as a futurist flip of “1999,” once again with collaborator Troye Sivan. All the futuristic sci-fi keys lead to thumping drums and crushed synth by the finish.

The album is an avant electronic affair full of warped vocalizing and metallically whirring synth, balanced by bubbly melodies and big choruses. There are a lot of catchy bass lines and pop percussion, with lyricism centered around partying, dripping cool bombast, romantic hardship, and personal anguish. While the features might help sell it, Charli performs best when she’s in her own defined space. Some of the tracks don’t necessarily come all the way together, but it’s overall full of pop bangers, personalized ballads, and electronic experimentation. As the tracks blend from mechanized chaos to saccharine melodies, Charli further defines the space she inhabits as one uniquely her own.

Charli” is available Sep. 13 on Apple Music.