“Dear God,” sings Charlotte Aitchison, with a note of irritation in her voice, as Sucker’s opening title track gets into gear, “do you get me now?” You can’t really blame her. Aitchison is 22, and Sucker is her third album as Charli XCX. Her first, 14, came out – or rather, was given away at gigs – nearly seven years ago. Her second, 2013’s True Romance, was an ignominious commercial flop: it reached No 85, and all but one of its six singles failed to make the charts at all. You don’t need to be an expert in the machinations of the latterday music industry to realise that should have been the end of Charli XCX. These days, you’re supposed to get one shot at being a mainstream pop star; if you miss the target, you can clear your desk and start thinking about eligibility for jobseeker’s allowance.
And yet, here we are, faced with Charli XCX’s second act in a world where there aren’t supposed to be second acts. It would be nice to think that her record company stuck with her as a result of True Romance’s glowing critical notices, but the days are long gone when a major label might persevere with a low-selling pop artist just because a few rock hacks think her Todd Rundgren and Gold Panda samples are clever, if such days ever existed in the first place. The truth is that True Romance’s commercial failure would have been the end of Charli XCX, had it not been for I Love It, the flatly brilliant Icona Pop single that Aitchison co-wrote and made a guest appearance on. It sold 2m copies in the US in 2012; better still, it reached No 1 in the UK a year later, ameliorating True Romance’s simultaneous failure to set the charts alight.
The benefits of persistence became apparent last summer, when Aitchison scored a huge transatlantic hit with Boom Clap, a confection of wafty electronics and booming drums every bit as hook-laden as I Love It. Coupled with a guest appearance on another of the summer’s biggest singles, Iggy Azalea’s Fancy, it looked suspiciously as if Aitchison’s moment had at last arrived. Understandably, the appearance of Sucker has been attended with excitement, bolstered by its intriguing list of collaborators, in which standard-issue pop names like Stargate and Greg Kurstin rub shoulders with Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo, genre-bending electronic producer Cashmere Cat and Rostam Batmanglij of Vampire Weekend.
Indeed, you get the sense that Sucker has been attended by perhaps a little too much excitement for its own good. In the US, where the album was released in December (it appeared at No 6 in Rolling Stone’s best albums of 2014 list), reviews went big on its radical and uncompromising nature: it was frequently referred to as punk. That is obviously talk to get the blood up. Punk is a catch-all term, encompassing everything from the shouty vegan anarcho-syndicalism of Crass to the intricate concept albums of Fucked Up to the late GG Allin throwing his own excrement around on stage while singing Eat My Diarrhea. Adopting any of these as an influence would clearly represent a radical gesture on the part of a mainstream pop star.
In the case of Sucker, however, punk means the occasional presence of some distorted guitars and some swearing. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but the listener should perhaps adjust their expectations of uncompromising radicalism accordingly. With its synthesisers topped with chugging riffs and powerchords, what Sucker usually resembles is a more unbridled, less obviously micro-managed version of the Strokes-inspired new wave pop style unveiled on Kelly Clarkson’s 2004 hit Since U Been Gone and later adopted, to staggering commercial effect, by One Direction. At its best, as on the withering string of put-downs that comprises Breaking Up or Hanging Around’s homage to I Love Rock’n’Roll, it’s great, fizzy, trashy fun. At its worst, as on London Queen, it gets a bit tinny and irritating: a criticism that’s been levelled at virtually every attempt to graft a new-wave/pop hybrid over the last 40 years, from Back of My Hand by the Jags to Busted.
The one thing it never is, though, is particularly radical. It’s tempting to say that it doesn’t really need to be. If her songwriting occasionally misfires, churning out stuff that’s indistinguishable from every other indistinguishable song on the Radio 1 playlist – the Rita Ora feature Doing It is a case in point - it’s frequently dead on target, as evidenced by the closing So Over You, which distinguishes itself from dozens of other big, synthy mid-tempo pop tracks out there simply by being a slightly better song.
That said, there’s certainly a hint of screw-you subversion about the lyrics, at least in the context of recent pop music. The usual you-are-beautiful, believe-in-yourself platitudes are dispensed with in favour of paeans to hedonism, or “getting high and getting wrecked” as Break the Rules puts it. Famous features what appears to be a reference to taking LSD, of all things; the closest it comes to the arena of self-help is a song about having a wank. In marked contrast to the X Factor-peddled notion that celebrity is within everyone’s reach, Aitchison’s songs present her fame and success as something fantastic, unattainable by mere mortals. It would sound a bit snotty if she wasn’t so funny: Gold Coins depicts her literally building a castle out of money, pulling up the drawbridge, then sitting inside it, smoking a fag.
One of the reasons that image is funny is that it wildly overstates the level of success Charli XCX has achieved thus far: as it turned out, Sucker was a modest US success rather than a chartbuster. But for all its failings, and for all that it falls short of the more hysterical hype, it does enough to convince you that her long-delayed moment in the sun won’t be fleeting: perhaps she’ll get there yet.