Charli XCX: Pop 2 review – kick-ass hits from a parallel universe

With adventurous ideas, noisy thrills and eclectic guests, Charli XCX shows that cheesy pop can be truly creative

Charli XCX’s second mixtape of 2017 arrived accompanied by a short explanatory note addressed to the artists’ fans – “I was so lost for a while with who I was … fuck playing the game” – and an interview in which she announced she might never bother releasing a “proper” album again. Her frustration is understandable. Over the course of the last decade, she’s had a couple of huge hit singles, written a couple more for other artists and collaborated with everyone from Rita Ora to Blondie to – dear God – James Blunt, but she has still remained a slightly marginal presence within pop’s glittering firmament.

Perhaps her failure to connect in the way she might has something to do with latterday pop music itself. The Top 40 is largely delivered and consumed via streaming services, which seems to have both slowed it down – there are singles in this week’s chart that have been around since last summer – and narrowed its range. The murky business of playlist curation in an age when playlists have replaced radio as the means by which many people access new music, the way “if you like that, you’ll like this” algorithms work, and the pressure on artists might to make music that isn’t too disruptive lest it jolt the listener into fast-forwarding: all of it appears to have resulted in a more homogenous chart, with anything too out-of-the-ordinary shunted to the peripheries.

Listen to Out of My Head by Charli XCX ft Tove Lo and Alma

In part, the point of Pop 2 seems to be to demonstrate by example that there’s a world of more interesting pop music out there, currently unreflected by the charts. The list of guest artists features big hitters – Carly Rae Jepsen’s voice floats over the increasingly deranged, Moroder-esque synth line of opener Backseat – and a host of Charli XCX’s fellow pop outliers: Tove Lo, , Mykki Blanco and Caroline Polachek of the perennially underrated Chairlift.

But it’s the least well-known names that give you the most pause and pay testament to Charli XCX’s skills as a talent-spotter. Brazilian vocalist and “most followed drag queen in the world on Instagram” Pabllo Vittar; extravagantly foul-mouthed rapper Cupcakke; Estonian “post-Soviet rap” MC Tommy Cash, a man who claims to have been born as a result of a chemical accident in Kazakhstan when a scientist ejaculated into some chemical waste; German transgender pop star Kim Petras; and Dorian Electra, a singer and performance artist whose career has taken her on a seven-year journey from writing songs about Friedrich Hayek and being hailed a hero by rightwing libertarians to producing work about intersectional feminism and queer history. It’s hard not to think the Top 40 would be considerably enlivened by the presence of any or all of them, rather than, say, yet another earnest, acoustic-guitar sporting character fashioned in the image of Ed Sheeran.

Charli XCX performing at Lollapalooza Paris, July 2017.
Charli XCX performing at Lollapalooza Paris, July 2017. Photograph: ddp USA/REX/Shutterstock

Of course, an eclectic and interesting supporting cast counts for nothing unless the music is good, but Pop 2 does an impressive job of convincing you that Charli XCX is infinitely better when freed from record company interference. She has great ideas, among them uncoupling producer and architect of PC Music, AG Cook, from PC Music itself, or rather, from PC Music’s tedious central conceit. Installed as Pop 2’s executive producer and freed from the obligation to make records reiterating a hackneyed point about pop music being a form of consumer goods, he comes up with some adventurous, fantastic stuff, its wilful modernity presumably a reaction to the flawed attempt to update old-fashioned garage rock on XCX’s so-so 2014 album Sucker. Tears sets an extremely well-written lighters-out stadium pop anthem to a ferocious, vaguely industrial rhythm track. Delicious overloads the vocals with Auto-Tune, then throws them against a backing that twists and shifts in an oddly unsettling way, before finally giving way to an icy choral finale. The clattering noise of I Got It is forceful and thrilling. The chorus of Femmebot carries itself with a bizarre intensity – listening to it feels like fighting with Day-Glo rave synthesisers.

The kind of big-name songwriting teams employed on Sucker are noticeable by their absence – though Stargate make a brief appearance – so the writing is largely down to the singer herself and her eclectic array of guests. The 10 tracks never stint on the basic stuff. There are big choruses and hooks amid the teeming sound, not least on Unlock It and Out of My Head, tracks that sound like hit singles from a slightly more adventurous, expansive alternate universe than the one the charts currently inhabit – a place where pop stars see boxes as something to think outside of, rather than just tick.

This week Alexis listened to…

Trailer Limon – Love Don’t Pay the Bills

Over Christmas, I stumbled across Austin Boogie Crew, a disco equivalent of Daptone Records, putting out beautifully turned, 80s-inspired but but oddly timeless soul/boogie tracks like this.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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