On first glance, it’s easy to chalk up Charlie Puth’s music as gimmicky. After all, this is the guy who spent the pandemic throwing up thirst traps on Instagram and documenting the recording of his latest album, Charlie, with spastic, random videos on TikTok and Reels.
The 30-year-old even has a song on his self-titled album called “That’s Hilarious,” with lyrics criss-crossing between serious and scatty like a “JK” text. You half-expect Puth to end the song with a laughing emoji or an apology for accidentally making you feel some type of way.
Puth has always been one of the savviest artists in the industry and he knows how to get people talking, as demonstrated by his skin-baring pics on social media. But on Charlie, the singer finally has an album that deserves the attention– and admiration –he seems to crave so desperately.
Across 12 tracks that all clock in under three minutes or so in length, Charlie is an expertly-crafted collection of earworms that stay in your head longer than any viral photo or TikTok clip. On his terrific, cohesive third studio album, the man with the perfect pitch proves he’s got the perfect formula for a great pop record too.
At its core, Charlie is a breakup album, with lyrics that speak to loneliness and regret. “Don’t give your heart to a girl who’s still got a broken one,” Puth sings on the John Mellencamp-esque “Smells Like Me,” which flips the lipstick-on-collar analogy to a male point of view. “You just can’t compare what used to be, I hope your jacket smells like me,” he croons, daring his ex to get over him.
On the hard-chugging “Charlie Be Quiet,” Puth holds back from revealing his true feelings to the object of his affection. “I’m not making the same mistake, won’t be putting my heart on display,” he warns himself. “If she knows you’re in love, she’s going to run away.”
Despite his seemingly blase persona, Puth is a sensitive soul at heart and Charlie explores the multitude of emotions that come from unrequited love. But while Puth is a man who’s been wronged, he isn’t someone who wallows, and the darker lyrics on the album are lifted by bright and upbeat melodies, which reference everything from alternative, to pop rock, to early-aughts boy bands.
The quirky “Tears On My Piano” plays like a Third Eye Blind B-side with its minor key guitar riff and shout-it-out chorus. ”Baby you’re responsible for all these tears on my piano,” Puth wails, against a staccato-style cadence Stephen Jenkins would be proud of.
There are shades of Blink 182 on the soaring “There’s a First Time for Everything,” and a clear Weezer influence on his latest single, “I Don’t Think That I Like Her,’ which is catchier and more clever than anything on the radio right now.
And then there’s the actual boy band influence on Charlie, with Puth teaming up with BTS’ Jungkook on the summer hit “Left and Right” which has already amassed more than 500 million streams online (listen to the song on a pair of headphones with spatial audio to really get the “left and right” effect).
Just as people use humor to diffuse tension, Puth deftly plays around with sonic sensibilities on the album to offset the mature subject matter. Nowhere is that better represented than on the head-bopping, finger-snapping “Loser,” a mournful number masquerading as a Jamiroquai-style dance track.
At his best, Puth is one of the most-gifted vocalists in pop music today, mixing his delicate falsetto with an impatient, ornamental lower register to rousing effect. The Berklee grad also puts his music production degree to good use, taking the songs to unexpected places with a surprising chord progression here, a key change there or — on “Charlie Be Quiet” — a whisper to full voice moment that instantly commands your attention.
He’s less effective when it comes to conveying emotion, with his voice so carefully produced at times, that there’s little room for feeling. The piano-driven ballad “When You’re Sad I’m Sad” is at once sweet and forlorn but lacks the heft needed to carry the subject matter. And while much of Charlie is about loss and insecurities, there’s a sense that Puth hasn’t actually done the work to get over his self-doubt. It’s reflected in a disconcerting dissonance between what Puth is singing about and how he’s singing about it. At times you’re almost left wanting to hear his voice break or crack just a little, if only so you can feel something alongside the intensely-charged lyrics.
Perhaps if Puth focuses less on bearing his abs and more on bearing his soul, he’ll be able to finally create his masterpiece. Until then, Charlie is an immaculate placeholder — and that’s no joke.
Editor’s Note: You may have noticed that we got rid of the stars on our reviews. If you’re an engaged music fan in 2022, your opinion isn’t going to be defined by some random number. We’ll tell you right away (with some new labels) when a new album is a must-hear or, in rarer cases, an instant classic. After that, our critics will help you make up your own damn mind.