Charli XCX



On her eighth album, the English singer seems both older and somehow younger, still as blunt as ever, without a single duff track on the deck

Yeah, hey, I was just about to do my song, actually.”

The previous Charli XCX album Crash, from 2022, gave off the vibe of an ending. Charli spoke about it in interviews: the final requirement of a long record contract. She apparently went all in to give the label what they needed, commercially. So Crash was at the most polished, mainstream (outright pop) end of XCX’s oeuvre, serving hypersexual chart-focused electro. It had very decent tunes (‘Good Ones’ is a super bop) but overall it was only really good, especially after the killer lockdown edgelord lo-fi of How I’m Feeling Now. So what then? More than a decade in, Charli XCX was still just (“just”!) a global cult icon and not a bona fide billion-streaming superstar. Listening at the time, I wondered a bit sadly (quietly to myself, not on socials or anything) if this signalled the end of Charli XCX as a significant force.

Two years on, Brat is her eighth record, she’s into her thirties, a hardened veteran of a game that fetishises new teenagers (especially young girls) every month. Yet it was stupid to doubt her. There’s no let up, no reconfiguring into a carpool lane. There’s nothing ‘mature’ about the sound of Brat, thank god. What she’s done (presumably freed from contractual pressure, though this is still a major label project) is she’s re-embraced the skeezy late night clubland Charli, opened the throttle and pushed the pedal to the floor.

Brat feels years younger than its predecessor. From top to tail, emotionally, as well as in these mid 2020s dancehall dynamics, XCX smashes her surroundings apart. It’s an ‘unleash the beast’ kind of a record, especially in how it sold itself early doors.

First came the ferocious ‘Von Dutch’ with its splattering, kinetic, hilarious video of Charli gooning and posturing around an airport, punching shit out of the camera, posing imperious on plane wings, getting dragged along by cleaning machines, clothes increasingly ripped and bloodstained. Inevitably, she ends up splayed on the baggage conveyor as the credits roll. If your kink is getting pushed down some steps onto runway tarmac POV-style, this was your jam.

Then we got the Internet Hot Girl strut of album opener ‘360’ and its sarcasm-drenched opening skit, with a perfectly pitched disinterested meanie turn by Rachel Sennott. Meanwhile, XCX rocks up at the Boiler Room with her full crew to preview the record, A.G. Cook, fiancé George, Easyfun, taking her turn first with a powerhouse DJ set, before orchestrating the dancing and stoking the fires the whole hour.

You know, kind of like Steve Wright and his posse.

This is Charli XCX leaning hard into her iconoclasm, playing hard at the no-shits-given VIP room ringmaster, and the results are golden. After ‘360’ we get the peak self-regarding uplift of taut minimal jam ‘Club Classics’.

I wanna dance to me, me, me, me…

Launch shows for Brat have been true solo performances, XCX abandoning even the meagre pair of dancers she’d taken with her for the Crash dates. Now she’s alone, choreo to a minimum, yet these are big stage club bounces of immense power. She works her crowd as hard as a drag queen, let alone a rock musician, driving the mood and – as in real life – leading the party from the front. In Barcelona last week, with tens of thousands still belting every word at 3am, the only other person onstage was a mobile camera operator, who became a combative element of the performance, mirroring that ‘Von Dutch’ video.

And yet. Consuming Brat in full, in amongst all the jagged, bleepy chaos, as a songwriter XCX is pushing hard at her truth this time round. It’s a parallel narrative to the braggadocio and shenanigans, even as they swirl omnipresent.

The excellently titled ‘Sympathy Is A Knife’ is plain guttural writing –

This one girl taps my insecurities
Don’t know if it’s real or if I’m spiralling
One voice tells me that they laugh
George says I’m just paranoid
Says he just don’t see it, he’s so naive
I’m embarrassed to have it – but need the sympathy

If we play the fandom game of batshit guesswork, one might imagine this is wrestling with envy of Taylor Swift, since Charli’s fella in real life, George, is the drummer from The 1975… but I’m trying to swear off that toxic route, not to mention stop dropping Tay’s name into reviews of other acts. Anyway, the chorus goes –

Cus I couldn’t even be her if I tried
I’m opposite, I’m on the other side
I feel all these feelings I can’t control
Oh no, don’t know why
All this sympathy is just a knife…

What a line. The track ends very abruptly.

‘I Might Say Something Stupid’ –

I don’t feel like nothing special
I snag my tights out on the lawn chair
Guess I’m a mess and play the role

With this desperately insightful passage –

I’m famous but not quite
But I’m perfect for the background
One foot in a normal life

I think it’s a big deal how vulnerable the songwriting on Brat comes off, when its lead singles, videos and live show have all been so pure punchy. There’s a pile of fragile, heartsick self-excoriation here. Complex, nuanced thinking about womanhood and ageing, and regret, and measuring life’s achievements.

Another key development is in the world-building. Before, Charli XCX had been a sort of tentpole holding up (sometimes singlehanded, it seemed) this fascinating, furious hyperpop scene, which moves very quickly and exists in its own eccentric orbit, while interplaying with many other artists, producers, performers and genres. Despite its centrality to her work, XCX hasn’t really permitted much of that frantic social energy into the lyrics themselves. Now it’s here, right at the heart of things, Charli’s universe.

“I’m so Julia” she sings in ‘360’, referring – as the whole fanbase knows – to Julia Fox, also prominent in the video, who also debuted her own song at Charli XCX’s Boiler Room session, who also… and so on. Or, “you gon’ jump if A.G. made it.” Obviously we already know who A.G. Cook is too, is the presumption. He’s been name-checked twice by the end of the second track.

It’s also present in the vivid poetic detail of ‘Everything Is Romantic’. Capri in the distance, then Pompeii in the distance. With different musical backing, I swear this could almost be a PJ Harvey love song.

I often think of context-free specificity as an Amy Winehouse lyric trick (really, it long predates Winehouse’s work – but she was a master). A deft nod of something personal and specific, without explaining it, such as using someone’s first name without any wider context, plopped into a pop song that otherwise explores a universal theme. Hence George showing up just with his first name and again, of course we all know who he is.

‘Talk Talk’ closes out the early trio of bona fide self-doubt masterpieces – they all cut off sharply, unresolved – and just when it’s getting too heavy, ‘Von Dutch’ drags us back onto the dancefloor.

Even ‘So I’, XCX’s lovely ballad for late great pop auteur Sophie, who died unexpectedly in January 2021, goes beyond a simple eulogy to explore whether Charli sacrificed their personal closeness because of professional overwhelm, and how she may regret that. It’s startling and sophisticated.

I was thinking the other day that over the past two years or so, our mainstream culture is becoming way more gonzo, with a returning sense of abandonment of the self to the experience, alongside aggressive silliness, and gung-ho creative flexes, all returning to the fore. In the way that the mainstream always appropriates the textures and tones of counterculture, as well as its actual practitioners. In adverts and on middle-class telly, it’s of course driven by the youth. Their desperate, nihilist dollar – so to speak – is trickling through and impacting content. Perhaps, in sonically foregrounding that side of her work, at this precise moment – while openly embracing self-aware regret at the same time – Charli has hit upon a pin-drop perfect vein of form.

Charli XCX can be laugh-out-loud funny, and profoundly moving. ‘Girl, So Confusing’ (perhaps a yearning, questioning conversation with Lorde?) is both.

You’re all about writing poems
But I’m about throwing parties
Think you should come to my party
And put your hands up

and later –

Cos people say we’re alike
They say we’ve got the same hair
One day we might make some music
The internet would go crazy
But you might still wanna see me
Falling over and failing
At least we’re closer to being
On the same page

None of these are diss tracks, by the way, it’s just Charli’s bluntness makes them feel both real and harsh.

Thing is, with all this going on, XCX’s deadpan articulacy of selfhood, placed at the heart of the whirlwind, without ever undermining it, is very impressive and engaging. So many artists today nail themselves to ‘sad in the club’ but nobody has done this essential a job since Robyn (who gives her royal seal of approval by contributing a guest verse to one of the ‘360’ remixes).

Penultimate track, the clicky, sing-song ‘I Think About It All The Time’ is a gorgeous metronomic half-talky meditation on the great maybe of motherhood, and the biological clock, and what’s it all for anyway?

And they’re exactly the same but they’re different now
And I’m so scared I’m missing out on something
So we had a conversation on the way home –
Should I stop my birth control?
Cos my career feels so small
In the existential scheme of it all

Still filled with nervousness and self-questioning, though this is the album’s sweetest, most unabashedly upbeat moment. Must’ve been tempting to close here. It’s far more romantic than the songs about romance. Still, cannot let it go without ‘365’ reprising the party girl ethos we opened with. Suddenly the minor key and the drug references feel darkly ominous. No, Charli XCX couldn’t let us off with even the hint of a happy ending.

Brat is a great, great record. There isn’t a duff jam on here. In the end, what you get at this all-nighter is the glorious, swaggering gonzo nihilism of Charli XCX, versus the lovelorn, self-examining humanity of Charlotte Aitchison, and the winner is us. I hope the cost isn’t too high. At the end of it, I wondered, a bit bemused (quietly to myself) if, actually, it is Brat that signals an ending of Charli XCX the hard partying pop icon, on her own terms. I hope not, though.

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