Back in the spring, I was walking down a street near my apartment when a car with its passenger window open cruised by, and a candy-spun chorus blasted out toward the sidewalk
“Boom clap, the sound in my heart, the beat goes on and on and on and on-“
and in my head, I thought, “What. Is. This. Song.”
Charli XCX is, in another world, the sassy, kind of salacious sidekick YA teen girl protagonists look to for fashion and boy advice. For a while, her career did seem only illuminated on the fringes of the pop idol spotlight. Though XCX (real name Charlotte Aitchison) had made a name for herself writing songs (obligatory “I Love It” mention) and then released an album of dreamy pop soundscapes (2013’s True Romance), none of her own singles took flight: the music was maybe too expansive, too burdened by things like atmosphere and intrigue.
“Nuclear Seasons” – Charli XCX
Then in March, her pop sidekick persona paid off in the form of her sticky-sweet chorus on Iggy Azalea’s Fancy. And on her second album, the cheerfully-titled Sucker, XCX ditches the pop auteur schtick and goes straight for the jugular — cheekily bratty lyrics layered on top of earworm melody lines that sound like songs you heard back in high school, only refined to their finest processed form.
For almost any other artist, that would be a diss, but Sucker works became XCX, who’s become the living epitome of a tattoo choker (and possible part-time Marina Diamandis impersonator?), laces her delivery with a knowing wink back at her listening audience. To adults, she’s taking teenage tropes and inflating them to their most cartoonish levels. To teens, she knows exactly how it feels — oh my godddddd.
“Boom Clap” – Charli XCX
Nowhere is this more obvious than on “Boom Clap” (which was turned down by Hilary Duff’s team because it wasn’t “cool enough“). The single, which first came out as part of the soundtrack for the John Green adaptation and universal tearjerker The Fault in Our Stars, set the course for the rest of Sucker: monster hooks and lyrical delivery that bears an aural Lipsmackers kiss print.
When Sucker works, it really works. “Boom Clap” is far and away the best track on the album, and other songs with similarly starry-eyed lyrics, e.g. “Doing It” and “Caught in the Middle,” capture the ersatz fluttering of emotions that come with endlessly uncertain teenage love. On the flip side, gleeful kiss-offs like “Sucker,” “Famous,” and “Breaking Up” (with its hilariously exasperated lyrics: “Everything was wrong with you / So breaking up was easy to do”) are brimming with teen girl meanness and aimed directly at the genitals of their cowering targets. And of course, there are the “wish I were anywhere but here” tunes: second single “Break The Rules” with its EDM-inspired chorus, the luxury imagery-dripping “Gold Coins,” whistling, wistful “Body Of My Own,” and “Hanging Around,” a bored (not boring) riff on escapism weighted down with droning bass and dull drum claps.
There are a few moments when Sucker slacks off, namely “London Queen” (which was co-produced by indie rock troll Ariel Pink) and the two tracks on which Vampire Weekend member Rostam Batmanglij contributed, “Die Tonight” and “Need Ur Love,” with the former providing the cringeworthy lines “I could die tonight / ‘Cause I’ve got the magic in my veins / And I’m going hard with all my friends” (their The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 soundtrack collaboration, “Kingdom,” fares much better). But these are speed bumps in the sugar rush of what is ultimately a knowing, powerhouse pop re-debut.