There are two basic brands of sad when your relationship craters: One’s when your lover turns out to be a lying asshole. Worse, arguably, is when you realize the asshole’s you. This latter sad is woven throughout Charli, the first LP in five years by the punky English avant-pop queen born Charlotte Aitchison. This impulse is radical by definition in the social media age — a spectacle of people broadcasting their rightness 24/7 in which, by and large, no one apologizes for shit.
“Did I fuck it up?” Charli XCX wonders on “Thoughts,” driving around Hollywood full of drugs, missing someone hard, with a gnawing sense she’s traded her real friends for fakes. “Sorry I broke you down/Sorry I tore your heart” she offers on “February 2017,” feverishly waiting for her device to ping with a response. “I’m sorry if I’m selfish … sorry if I’m a little scared” she blurts on “Blame It On Your Love,” another fucking-it-up lament that gets pep-talked by Lizzo, who just shakes her head sympathetically: “I’ma give you one chance to fall in love/Give you one chance — don’t fuck this up!”
But Charli is a surprisingly joyous set of sad bangers, largely due to a busload of game, rising-star collaborators — unsurprising for an artist defined by her close alliances, especially with other strong women, from the get-go (see Icona Pop’s “I Love It” and Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” both Charli XCX co-writes). On “February 2017,” she gets help from two of America’s more compelling pop breakouts, the indie-styled singer-songwriter Clairo, and the bedroom-house producer-DJ-singer-songwriter Yaeji, who jumps on the digitally-distressed apologia, after a burst of radio static, with commiseration in Korean. Indeed, Charli is something of an avant-pop UN, with a gender-fluid sensibility. “Gone” is a bilingual tag-team with French pop emissaries Christine and the Queens. “Click” features Estonian rapper-cum-performance artist Tommy Cash. “Shake It,” reunites the girl-gang from her Pop 2 mixtape showcase “I Got It” — Brazilian drag heroine Pabllo Vittar, outré-emo Chicago MC CupcakKe, pansexual L.A. firestarter/Sia pal Brooke Candy—for a porny rap throwdown with New Orleans bounce queen Big Freedia. The inclusiveness is a nice metaphor in these divisive days; saavy too, advancing pop’s evolution as international lingua franca.
The thrill-ride production doubles down on the one-world notion, sometimes to a fault — voices are smeared, blurred and distorted to the point where they can be hard to differentiate. Overseeing it is A.G. Cook, who’s been Charli XCX’s main sound scientist for a few years now, and whose PC Music label has branded itself by stretching electro-pop tropes into cartoonishly strange shapes. On the best tracks, like “Click,” a rap paean to selfie curation set to a steroidal pachinko-parlor beat, and “Warm,” a lovers’ colloquy harmonized gorgeously with Haim, the funhouse-mirror production magnifies vibe and melody into something breathtaking. Elsewhere, on “Gone” or the Sky Ferreira kaiju reggae collab “Cross You Out,” it feels like an end unto itself.
But mostly, the tech-fetishism, pop hooks, and idiosyncratic heart work together, with Charli functioning as much as expert curator and cheerleader as main attraction. Not that she can’t go it alone. On “Official,” she delivers an intimate ballad with vivid images — the shape a sleeping body makes beneath the sheets, “the things we do by the sink in my kitchen — run through a voice processor amid digitized fingersnaps, billowing cotton-candy clouds, and benevolent unicorn sighs. And then, for a few seconds on the chorus, the electronics all drop away, and you hear an aching human voice, negotiating a relationship with the same authority that she makes pop music.