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Review: Charli XCX Punks Us All With ‘Sucker’

8
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: December 16, 2014
Label: Asylum/Atlantic/Neon Gold

This year was a good one to be Charli XCX, but what no one ever mentions is that the 22-year-old — born Charlotte Aitchison — doesn’t actually want to be popular. Don’t get her wrong: She’ll take what you’ve got, but she doesn’t need it. Ambitious but nonchalant, she is more than happy to sell a canon of number-one hits to other artists (Icona Pop’s “I Love It,” Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy”) without putting herself on the chopping block. And hey, her second album’s “Boom Clap” is her first top ten hit on the Hot 100.

But that’s boring to settle for, hence the arrival of history’s first pop album to be heralded by an intro of “Fuck you, sucker!” The big story on Sucker is guitar, which is one way to “break the rules” in an industry where rock no longer has hits, and also a rejoinder to Black Keys fans who don’t think Joan Jett, Blondie, and Cyndi Lauper are “serious” artists like Jonny Lang. Lauper especially has her subversive squeak all over Aitchison’s singing style, though she never made anything as loud and punky as “Break the Rules” or “London Queen.” And Jett’s “I Hate Myself for Loving You” informs the call-response verses and mass-chanted chorus of the stomping “Breaking Up.” There’s even some Annabella Lwin in the choppy “Famous” — you remember Bow Wow Wow, don’t you?

One area she does leave the listener wanting is lyrics, which rarely get more memorable than “Everything was wrong with you / So breaking up was easy to do,” though “I’ve got a body of my own” shows promise. Even Ashlee Simpson’s “Rule Breaker” had more ideas of how to “Break the Rules” than skipping school to go clubbing.

That aside, being in the spotlight has allen-wrenched Charli’s hooks to expert, jingle-level insidiousness on “Caught in the Middle,” a track whose chorus you’ll never forget while remembering virtually nothing about the verses. It’s miles more disciplined and simultaneously more frayed than anything on her debut, True Romance, which thought its own cleverest trick was sampling Gold Panda. You can hear that same evolution in “Boom Clap,” which actually doesn’t stray too far from her first single, “Stay Away,” a darkwave-tinged echo chamber of synth-pop and emotive vocals pleading for unspecific resolution. It’s almost in the same tempo and key, until it veers upward, breaking from the wind-tunnel production with a strange hook that slaps the beat hard on each “BOOM clap / The SOUND / Of my HEART,” while tucking the melody in neatly around the edges.

A similar fringe-pop rebel plundering alt-rock as an escape, Sky Ferreira found a way to make the personal universal on songs like “I Blame Myself” and “Nobody Asked Me (If I Was Okay),” and thus her Night Time, My Time was more than an exceptionally good pop album; it deserved Courtney Love comparisons even though Love herself had trouble making the confessional go pop. With an occasional singsong too-many like the Rivers Cuomo-assisted “Hanging Around,” or missed opportunities like omitting the excellent one-off single “SuperLove,” Sucker is just an exceptionally good pop album. Those are rare enough as it is.