Life at this point in time was an almost vacuous blur; it felt unreal, like a stasis with nothing completely certain, confirmed, or even bordering on true. It was a weird, aimless time in my life, and in the lives of millions of others reeling from the uncertain, abnormal everything. In that space, then, it is all the more impressive to, within the span of the two month peak of the virus's global effects, turn that situation into a space that creates beautifully convincing and enthralling music.
Charli XCX is an artist I've only recently come to appreciate, even if her Pop 2 mixtape has been within my sights for years at this point; up until the last couple months, I unknowingly confined my knowledge of her bubblegum bass and hyperpop catalogue to solely that project, not giving the rest of her work the attention until her favorite two records of mine have long since been staples in that vein. Her 2019 outing Charli is an LP I'm still a bit baffled by, for all the right reasons—but I think in part due to my over-exploring of its peaks, I've burnt myself out from its over-the-top, y2k-neon sensibilities.
This record, on the other hand, is something that keeps creeping back into my rotation, unconventional but revelatory in its approach to hyperpop; it shows a certain level of emotion that I think her previous can get drawn away from in the effort to really extend the genre. And even if that record has a slightly better peak emotionally with her Official ballad, how i'm feeling now seems to serve the purpose of getting to the point where that track is relevant; it is the quarantine of self-doubt and eventual mental growth that allows for that affirmation.
But even at the record's bookends, there's uncertainty with how intense and utterly absorbing those two tracks, pink diamond and visions are, kicking you off balance, making an unsteady path in and around the record a guarantee. They are attention-grabbing, immaculately produced works of ear nausea, when both breakdown enough that even the synths have no idea which direction they're hitting you. That first track is such an instantly abrasive start, taking a bit to warm up to but providing tons of staying power opening an album like this; it's just-clear-enough imagery gives it just the right amount of bite vocally. And despite the latter being only a bit cogent as a closer, its penultimate companion serving more of a personal craving towards emotional value, it still feels completely confident even if the visions of life flashing by aren't completely certain. It's aching with hope, mirroring its opener with its own confidence in needing space, a personal oasis needed even if it means working as hard as possible for it.
The opener's twin following tracks continue in a bit more of a pointed, melodic direction with forever and claws. To this day, even a couple handful of weeks after my first listen, both are still some of my favorite tracks that Charli has ever put to tape, despite the sometimes-mushy lyrics of the former. It is without a doubt the sturdiest song in the tracklist, given the perfect amount of space to grow and shift ever-so-slightly, waxing an ode to her partner in the middle of the pandemic in the most laudatory moment the record has. The latter though is a stellar follow-up, even if it's the second shortest track after the opener; Dylan Brady's production and the final-seconds complete annihilation of the atmosphere work super effectively, with some kind of honeymoon in the energy that keeps it endlessly appealing.
7 years has maybe the most mildly positive feedback I can give for the record, adding to the runtime and giving the whole project a bit of breathing room, even if it follows in a similar stride as the last two tracks without as much of the experimentation. I don't think this record is the same without it, with another really good hook and second verse to keep the quality level of this project high, but in the grand scheme of what this record does, I think it blends in just a tad—but it's still really good.
On the complete other hand of memorability, detonate is genuinely a near-perfect self-reflection of destructive thoughts that can creep in for the context of relationships, specifically her's already mentioned. Without a doubt it's the record's emotive peak, showing those thoughts as completely consuming in the midst of a super bubbly, crisply produced pop jewel. enemy is its second part, now focusing on doubting the people she loves most instead of herself; it provides the same amount of focus as the last cut, fitting its importance into the tracklist really well without feeling that it's dwelling upon the point too much at all, and the therapy session is greatly appreciated.
Unfortunately though, I think that halfway point is the last time the record is really taking its runtime and construction as superbly as it had before, with the next set of three throwing off the momentum quite a bit, especially with it taking up almost a third of the record's time. There's nothing overtly wrong about i finally understand, being a sort of muted positive emotive swing after enemy, half-resolving its preceding conflicts, but still after so many listens, it's relatively ineffectual at its goal with how potent the previous two cuts were. The instrumental switch-up could be part of it, even if the idea itself is more than fitting in the record's atmosphere, but it simply missteps a bit. The track that really misguides the record the most, at least to my ears, is party 4 u, its lull in the tracklist being even more unfortunate because it takes the longest track time, stretching its comparatively small purpose far enough that its slight shifting across the runtime feels like nothing's happening. It is without a doubt the weakest track in the mix, and the one moment the record doesn't feel like it's pushing towards something greater.
c2.0 though, right in the middle of those two, is actually quite great, despite its insanely repetitive first half—which is not a dig in the slightest. It's really a one-of-a-kind remake and reimagining of the now-iconic Click from her previous LP, being oddly touching in a super unique way, longing for the friend group she can't be near mid-pandemic. Its switch-up and guttural synth punches are completely enveloping, with absolutely killer hooks and verses in the second half.
The final two steps of the record are disjointed just like the rest, in a similarly satisfying way that the first three were, with the former anthems being as exhilarating as pink diamond was at the onset, but in a differently over-the-top kind of way with its shrieking synth patches. It has the power to sustain itself for another ten minutes at least, but condenses itself with its desire to hear exactly this electrifying energy in a New York City club. And as mentioned prior, visions as the closer might be a bit inconclusive, but it mirrors real life in that aspect, wonderfully showing its eclectic, electronic visions of what life was and will be in the midst of a societal separation.
And I think that perfectly describes the record: a kind of computer-aided, personal refuge both away from and absorbed in the state of life at that exact, distinct time. It might run a bit short, especially since these sessions must have had even more magic to give—but the gift of these eleven tracks is more than enough for its backstory, and the messages Charli conveys are still fully realized, even if one of its major points falls on a cut that feels a bit out of the ordinary. Though despite those notes, it recovers and sustains itself really well, and has some of Charli's all-time best songs, topics, hooks, and production work. The whole project is an incredible testament to some art not needing to be in the oven for too long to still turn out this good, and being at such a limited capacity is even more admirable. It is a stitched-up encapsulation of pandemic life, with all the isolated love stories that it needs.
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