Charli XCX : Brat

Charli XCX Brat review

The first thing that struck me when I pressed play on Charli XCX‘s Brat for the first time, the thing that continues to flood my body with endorphins when I press play again and again (having listened to it nearly 20 times since it came out on Friday, nearly a compulsion rather than professional diligence), is how fun it is. It’s not that pop can’t be serious, obviously (and, pardon the second parenthetical in as many sentences, this one gets serious too). Rather, it’s that pop, a format predicated on that razor’s edge balance of maximalist arena-filling universalism and the granular specificity of the singer-songwriter artiste, is marked distinct from so many of its related and constituent genre elements precisely by that sense of fun, be it the automatic compulsion to sing along even if you can’t or to dance and move your body even if you make a fool of yourself. It’s a sentiment all pop strives for; here, it’s effortless and immediate.

But then the details start to emerge. Was that a reformatting of an ’00s-era indie rock gang chorus played over dubstep? Is that a reformatting of an experimental hip-hop song, stealing genius back from someone who has since forfeited that claim? There are gothic synths over breakbeats, heavily effected vocals and clean traditional pop singing, house music and Moroder-style electro-disco. One could list figures that feel like clear inspirations for the overall ethos, the sonic palette and even specific songs, but that would be missing the point, seeing trees instead of the forest. The sonic palette of the record is rapaciously omnivorous, plucking like a magpie this and that morsel from seemingly every musical style that crossed into the mainstream in the 2010s. The provenance of the artist matters less than the effect, and the pieces on their own are viewed much in the way great production minds see them: elements which only have value in context, which can be endlessly reconfigured.

To say this is collaborator/producer A.G. Cook’s greatest assemblage of material would be an understatement. Hyperpop typically has, in this writer’s opinion, a tendency toward vexing pastiche, taking a half-mocking tone to its source material. Here, that sense of hip sneering derision and irony is utterly absent, for reasons that will be discussed shortly. That bare-hearted sincerity sells it. But the real glue of the album is Charli. Her performances, of course, are compelling, showing a shifting identity of sounds and styles of singing, from spoken patter to various approaches at rapped vocals to traditional uninflected singing and more. But the psychodrama of performance here is underpinned by the clear subtext and occasional explicit text of much of this material: the loss of SOPHIE, her friend, who helped completely reinvent Charli’s sound, actualize her ideas and establish her as rival to Carly Rae as the big pop star of our little musical world.

That grief takes complex shape. On “Club Classics,” a banger, she describes a desire to dance with SOPHIE again in passing; in “So I”, the grief is more meticulously detailed and melancholic. Even on seemingly unrelated tracks such as “I Might Say Something Stupid” and “I Think About It All The Time”, ponderances on social awkwardness and the temptation of motherhood, feel haunted by SOPHIE’s presence, the loneliness and confusion of life after the loss of a friend and the way grief makes us reevaluate what is important in our lives.

The narrative eye is of similar breadth to the production, allowing room for achingly sincere quiet ballads and avant-garde dance numbers alongside more traditional pop flair. She even makes room to lambast one of my personal least favorite types of people, the rise of the overly twee, coke-addicted, deeply right-wing coquettish influencer type. The album was rereleased recently with three extra tracks; their excision makes immediate sense. The set as was delivered was manicured and shaped meticulously. Sure, Crash and How I’m Feeling Now might have higher highs, but this is her best album qua album, bar none.

She opens and closes the album with a conjoined diptych, “360” and “365,” which share a leitmotif and certain refrains and vocal lines. Both are, in my view, Charli at peak power, the deep hybridity of the avant-garde with the roaringly populist, the confrontation of underground sounds with the mainstream without clearly favoring one over the other, producing club bangers with an arthouse flair. They frame the narrative of Brat, seem to portray the way this window of grief disrupts her life, allows like a novel the layers and anxieties of a life to peel back like strip mining a mountain. Its close brings to mind roaring synth-drenched dance house closers of the past, that universal sentiment, that grief is one day washed away, that there is presence and meaning located within the body, that joy is a type of remembrance. This is the pop album of the year. It’s acclaim is well-earned.

Label: Atlantic

Year: 2024

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Charli XCX Brat review

Charli XCX : Brat

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