Charlie Puth’s Voicenotes Is a Catchy, Nonsensical Ode to L.A. Ennui
Since the release of his charmless debut album Nine Track Mind, Charlie Puth has made more headlines for his romantic flings than his music. The 26-year-old former YouTube star, who broke onto the pop charts in 2015 with the mega-smash Paul Walker tribute “See You Again,” has proven himself a tabloid favorite thanks to alleged flings with Very Famous Millennial Women like his “We Don’t Talk Anymore” partner Selena Gomez, and actress Bella Thorne, with whom he found himself knee deep in an Instagram-centric cheating scandal involving MTV star Tyler Posey.
Thanks to his status as tabloid hunk and objectified video vixen (he covered himself in soap suds for Charli XCX’s cheeky “Boys” video), I expected Voicenotes to be a little more than a professional afterthought—more contractual obligation than passion project. But Puth is a canny songwriter (he’s penned hits for artists like Jason Derulo, Maroon 5, and Liam Payne), and Voicenotes’ first single “Attention,” rumored to be about his fling with Gomez, was a sign that he was learning how to translate his new persona into delectable pop.
Voicenotes is not, as expected, an album without something to say; on the contrary, it’s saying something hilarious, namely, “I am a man who wants nothing to do with ladies from L.A., but I have sex with them anyway.” Across the album’s 13 exceedingly catchy yet contradictory tracks, Puth laments his success and desirability while boasting about both. He doesn’t feel like explaining himself in “The Way I Am” but spends over three minutes doing so anyway. He wants nothing more than to be in New York City in the West Coast-hating “LA Girls,” but won’t stop showing up to terrible parties (at Bella Thorne’s house?) in Los Angeles long enough to take a trip back home. By the final track, “Through It All,” he’s exhausted the potential of this ridiculous planet even though he’s done slightly more than nothing for it.
At no point is Puth’s fondness for hypocrisy more palpable than on the one-two punch of “Patient,” an adult contemporary frivolity that his voice is at least one octave too high for, and “If You Leave Me Now,” an a cappella ballad sung with Boyz II Men. In both, he disregards each of his own red flags and makes a case for his latest lover to stay put. “Baby, if you leave me now,” he sings with a quivering vibrato in the latter, “you will take the biggest part of me.” That Puth just spent half an album complaining about women didn’t prevent me from being convinced that he had actually fallen for this one, but I’m obviously much easier to convince than the women in his life; on the following track, the synth-heavy “BOY,” he’s being dumped by an older woman. This low moment in his romantic journey is the high point of the album.
A lack of insight afflicts the music of Puth’s contemporaries–in particular Shawn Mendes and Meghan Trainor–that renders their earworms more frustrating than pleasurable. (The latter’s current hit, “No Excuses,” is an impossibly vague and unconvincing look into the life of someone who’s realized they can make a lot of money by appealing exclusively to arbiters of trailer and commercial music selections.) Puth, however, sings from the heart, even if that heart has no comprehension of actual hardship. Fucking in the spare bedrooms of cavernous L.A. houses in the middle of raging parties is Puth’s truth. Complaining that a woman doesn’t respect him because he was “born in the 90s” is Puth’s truth. Passionately, if unsuccessfully, writing an imitation of a song calling for social change for and recording it with James Taylor is Puth’s truth.
Voicenotes is the Top 40 equivalent of scrolling through the Instagram feed of an acquaintance who moved to L.A. with nothing but a dream and an endless cash flow of unknown origin, who found fame and success so quickly you get whiplash with every flick. He’s lovesick. He’s homesick. He’s at a party with someone you recognize from a show on Netflix. He took a selfie with Kehlani? We’re all stuck in the slow-moving hell of mid-2018, and Charlie Puth is speeding past us in the empty HOV lane, never even noticing the traffic jam immediately to his right. Ignorance is bliss, and in this instance, so is observing someone else’s.